Is It Time to Remove 'Cancer' Label From Low-Risk Prostate Tumors?

Mary Chris Jaklevic

April 18, 2022

A team of experts is recommending that doctors forgo describing early, low-grade prostate tumors as "cancers" as a way to ease anxiety among patients and their families and reduce unnecessary treatment.

Physicians often advise that men with low-risk prostate tumors wait to see if the disease worsens — an approach called "active surveillance" — rather than rushing to treat the condition. After all, low-grade tumors rarely cause harm, and therapies such as radiation and surgery can carry serious side effects, including impotence and urinary leakage.

Yet doctors still label these lesions "cancer," and as a result, some experts say, many men in the United States opt for treatment they don't need.

In a new paper likely to stoke debate, a multidisciplinary group of experts, including one patient, argue that overtreatment could be reduced by removing the word "cancer" from low-risk disease. Tumors that rate 6 on the Gleason score (GS) cannot invade other organs but nonetheless scare patients into undergoing risky treatments, they argue. Fewer than 1% of men with GS6 prostate tumors experience metastatic disease or die from cancer within 15 years of the initial diagnosis, they report.

"No matter how much time a physician may spend downplaying the significance of a GS6 diagnosis or emphasizing the phrase low-risk, the words 'you have cancer' have a potent psychological effect on most men and their families," they wrote in a paper published Monday in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Dropping the C word for low-risk tumors, which make up about half of 268,000 prostate cancer diagnoses annually in the United States, is not a new idea. An independent panel convened by the National Institutes of Health proposed just that in 2011.

Dr Scott Eggener

However, clinician support for the shift appears to be growing, said Scott Eggener, MD, a urologic oncologist and professor of surgery at the University of Chicago, and a co-author of the new article.

Eggener said active surveillance has been increasing dramatically in the United States, to about 60% of patients with GS6. "We feel like the landscape is right now to be talking about this issue," Eggener told Medscape Medical News.

Reducing unnecessary treatment, he and his coauthors argue, could reduce the cost of healthcare — and boost the benefit of prostate-specific antigen testing for prostate cancer, which the US Preventive Services Task Force at the moment deems small.

In addition, patients with prostate cancer diagnoses encounter increased risk of depression and suicide, disqualification or higher rates for life insurance, and questions from family and friends if they choose active surveillance over treatment — all of which might be ameliorated by a change in terminology.

The word "cancer" has been dropped from bladder, cervical, and thyroid conditions and prostate abnormalities that used to be classified as Gleason 2 through 5, they noted.

Keeping the Status Quo

But some physicians say GS6 doesn't need a name change.

From a scientific standpoint, GS6 disease has molecular hallmarks of cancer, according to Jonathan Epstein, MD, a professor of pathology, urology, and oncology at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland. More important, Epstein told Medscape, the classification does not guarantee that more serious cancer is not present, only that it has not been found yet in tissue samples.

Eggener acknowledged that while GS6 does have molecular markers associated with cancer — a fact that's "challenging to reconcile with" — giving it another name "would still require surveillance, and since the window of opportunity for curing localized [prostate cancer] is typically measured in years or decades, evidence of histologic progression to a higher-grade cancer would far precede the potential time of future metastasis in the majority of cases."

Still, Epstein worries that dropping the cancer designation may lead some patients to forgo active surveillance, which involves repeated imaging and biopsies to check for worse disease. Without such monitoring, he said, "if they do have higher grade cancer that's unsampled, it will pose a threat to their life."

Gleason 6 tumors "may progress, some significantly, or be incompletely sampled at the time of diagnosis. Both clinicians and patients need to understand such risk," Peter Carroll, MD, MPH, a urologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who is critical of the proposed name change, told Medscape.

Regardless of what it's called, Gleason 6 disease warrants close monitoring, said Joe Gallo, a 77-year-old Pennsylvania man whose high-risk cancer was detected during active surveillance. "If I had taken a laid-back, or less, approach" to monitoring, Gallo said, "necessary treatment may have been delayed and my condition may have become more serious."

Some advocates say patients and their families need to be educated that cancer exists on a spectrum of severity.

Mark Lichty, 73, chairman of a support group called Active Surveillance Patients International, received a Gleason 6 diagnosis 17 years ago. He resisted treatment against medical advice, and the cancer never progressed.

Lichty said active surveillance has been more widely adopted in Sweden, where physicians assure patients that treatment is unnecessary and support systems exist. "Yes, a diagnosis of cancer is frightening," he told Medscape. But "we can do a lot better in how we communicate the diagnosis."

Eggener reported consulting or advisory roles with Sophiris Bio, Francis Medical, Insightec, Profound Medical, and Candel Therapeutics; speakers' bureau at Janssen; and fees for travel, accommodations, and expenses from Janssen Biotech and Insightec; as well as an uncompensated relationship with Steba Biotech. The remaining co-authors reported several financial relationships, which are listed in the paper. Epstein and Carroll have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

J Clin Oncol. Published online April 18, 2022. Full text

Mary Chris Jaklevic is a healthcare journalist in the Midwest.

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