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Radiation Alone Can Prolong Life for Prostate Cancer Patients

WebMD Health News

July 14, 2000 -- When it comes to surviving prostate cancer, a man's best bet may be high-dose radiation. In the first study to show such a survival advantage, researchers found that patients who had received the highest doses of radiation -- because they had the most aggressive tumors -- were the most likely to be alive and disease free a decade or so after treatment.

Prostate cancer is more common in men over 50. Because the disease progresses slowly, even those with metastatic, or spreading, tumors are likely to die of old age or another health condition. Even so, the American Cancer Society reports that in 1999, 37,000 American men lost their lives to the disease, making it the second leading cause of cancer death among men in this country.

Now, with this study, comes "the first evidence that radiation treatment alone can translate into an improvement in survival, and that's the bottom line," lead researcher Richard Valicenti, MD, tells WebMD. Valicenti is assistant professor and director of clinical research at Bodine Center for Cancer Treatment at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.

The researchers looked at nearly 1,500 men (with an average age of 69 years) who had undergone radiation therapy for prostate cancer that had not spread. The men with the most aggressive, high-risk cancers, who'd received the highest doses of radiation, were most likely to be alive and cancer-free 10 years after receiving treatment.

And, says Valicenti, it looks like the survival benefits of radiation may apply to patients with less aggressive prostate cancers as well. Because the disease grows so slowly, that benefit just takes longer to see, statistically.

Although the radiation dosages in this research are "woefully low" compared to today's standards, says Lewis Smith, MD, who reviewed the paper for WebMD, "the findings allow us for the first time to say that there's a survival advantage for patients treated with a higher dosages of radiation. [It shows that] we can prolong their lives."

According to Smith, an assistant professor of radiation oncology at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, "before this, nothing had shown a survival advantage with radiation." Several studies had shown that higher doses of radiation could keep the blood measurement known as PSA -- the infamous marker of prostate cancer -- from rising, he says, "and we'd thought that would equate with survival. Now, we know that that is the case."

What the study shows, says Valicenti, is that "local radiation, in itself, is effective in reducing the risk of dying from prostate cancer," says Valicenti. His team's findings appear in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

For more information from WebMD, visit the Diseases and Conditions Prostate Cancer page.

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