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Prostate Cancer: Active Surveillance Offers Quality-of-Life Gains

'Watchful Waiting' May Offer More Benefits Than Treating the Disease in Select Cases
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Nov. 30, 2010 -- Active surveillance for men with localized prostate cancer may offer up some important quality-of-life advantages when compared to other initial prostate cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy and surgical removal of the prostate gland (radical prostatectomy), according to a new study.

At the end of the day, however, an individual’s preferences still play an important role in making prostate cancer treatment decisions, the study researchers point out in the Dec. 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"The quality-of-life advantage associated with active surveillance is robust,” conclude researchers led by Julia H. Hayes, MD, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “This benefit reflects the deferred and substantially lower incidence of adverse effects of treatment experienced by men under active surveillance.” Side effects of prostate cancer treatments can include impotence and incontinence.

What Is Active Surveillance?

Active surveillance is sometimes called watchful waiting. It involves close monitoring of the prostate tumor via tests, digital rectal exams, and intermittent biopsies with the intent of averting treatment unless or until the cancer progresses.

In 2009, 192,000 U.S. men were diagnosed with prostate cancer. Of these men, 70% would have been diagnosed with low-risk, localized disease, and more than 90% would have undergone treatment.

As many as 60% of men diagnosed with prostate cancer may not require therapy, the researchers point out.

Active surveillance is underused in the U.S. Less than 10% of men who would be eligible for active surveillance choose it for many reasons, including the anxiety that comes with the perception of doing nothing to treat a potentially growing cancer.

Treatments vs. Active Surveillance

Hayes and colleagues developed a model to look at the quality-of-life benefits and risks associated with active surveillance, internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy), intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), or radical prostatectomy in a hypothetical group of men aged 65 who were diagnosed with localized, low-risk prostate cancer.

Men aged 65 with low-risk prostate cancer who chose active surveillance (with IMRT if the cancer progressed) scored highest in terms of quality-adjusted life expectancy (QALE). This strategy produces 11.07 quality-adjusted life-years (QALY). QALY is a measurement of both quality and length of life, and one QALY reflects a year of life in a healthy state.

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