Tag Archives: watchful waiting

The real definition of active surveillance: what it means for a patient

Simon Crompton

Simon Crompton

It was only on the second day of ESO’s conference on active surveillance of low risk prostate cancer this weekend that the question was raised: what actually is active surveillance?

“Watchful waiting” and “active surveillance” were for many years regarded as the same thing. In fact, that Bible of medical veracity Wikipedia still equates the two – as observational approaches that allow men with low risk prostate cancer the opportunity to avoid or delay aggressive tests and treatments.

But the field has changed and specialised rapidly in the past 20 years, with the European School of Oncology taking a lead on extending knowledge in the field – organising three expert conferences, of which this was the latest. Those urologists, radiologists and public health experts attending such events are very clear that active surveillance is different from watchful waiting.

What’s the difference?

As Axel Semjonow from the University Hospital Muenster, Germany, explained: watchful waiting delays the need for palliative treatment, while active surveillance delays the need for curative treatment. Active surveillance is more likely to involve a schedule of assessment and tests, such as biopsy. Watchful waiting is more likely to apply to men with a life expectancy of less than ten years and will often follow active surveillance.

But these definitions only became widely used in 2008.

The rapid acceptance that active surveillance is an important strategy for treating low risk prostate cancer has had a lot to do with growing concerns about overdiagnosis and overtreatment in prostate cancer. For many men, biopsies, prostatectomy and radiotherapy produce effects far worse than their cancer ever would. A recent study showed that just 1% of men whose low risk prostate cancer is managed through active surveillance go on to die of the disease.

Conferences such as this are incredibly important for determining the best ways of selecting patients for active surveillance and of monitoring them while on the programme.

But active surveillance is still an emerging art, under-researched and ill-defined. The role of MRI scanning, for example, was a continual source of debate during the conference. We know a lot about its ability to diagnose prostate cancer. But in terms of its accuracy at monitoring disease progression, there are few yardsticks.

When cure seems the only goal

And, beyond the realms of such meetings, the very meaning of active surveillance is poorly understood. There are still varied definitions in scientific papers and guidelines. For prostate cancer patients, mere scientific statements of meaning do little good. Active surveillance offers many men the chance of a long and good quality of life without treatment side effects, but that might be hard to understand amid the stress of diagnosis when “cure” seems the only goal.

As several participants at the conference pointed out, amid the excitement of scientifically advancing this important field, the difficulty of patients understanding the approach and their personal risk should not be forgotten. Good communication has to be at the heart of programmes – and making sure that everyone understands what active surveillance really means today would be a good start.

Highlights from the conference:

 

More pieces in the prostate puzzle

Simon Crompton

Simon Crompton

When are the costs of surgery too great? It’s long been a burning question in prostate cancer, and papers presented over the past few days at the European Association of Urology’s conference in Madrid have added a few more pieces to the risk versus benefits jigsaw.

Speaking recently to Per-Anders Abrahamsson, the association’s Secretary General, for an article to be published in Cancer World, I was told about the current gaping holes in research in prostate cancer. For example, there is no randomised trial comparing radiation therapy with surgery – which constantly gets in the way of good clinical decision-making.

Clinicians and patients are also short of information to weigh about the long-term side effects of treatments – and research presented at EAU showed that the evidence that clinicians currently act on might also be misleading. Take the incidence of erectile dysfunction following prostate removal surgery. The standard way of measuring erectile dysfunction is by the International Index of Erectile Function (IIEF), but researchers from the Herlev Hospital in Copenhagen realised that this might not take into account the sudden change in erectile dysfunction brought about by prostate surgery.

So they added another simple question to the survey: “Is your erectile function as good as before the surgery? (yes/no)”

The difference it made to responses from prostate surgery patients was striking. Responding to the IIEF survey without the additional question, nearly 24% of patients registered no decline in their erectile function after surgery. But when they were asked the additional question, just 7% said their erections were as good as before surgery.

That’s quite a difference for quite a lot of people. Such evidence could have a major influence on decisions about whether or not to have a radical prostatectomy.

Also presented at the conference was evidence about another kind of cost associated with prostate surgery: urinary incontinence. A team of doctors from the University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands, have used health insurance data to reveal the extent of post-operative incontinence and the costs of dealing with it. On a purely financial basis, the information is interesting enough: the average cost of incontinence pads is €210 each year (another study calculated that the 20 year additional cost of incontinence for a man after prostate surgery is close to €50,000).

But more important were the findings about the percentage of men suffering urinary incontinence in the first year after a urology procedure or follow-up. For men undergoing watchful waiting/active surveillance, it was 8%. For those undergoing prostate removal it was 80%, persisting into a second year for 40%.

Patient information about prostate surgery rarely specifies such figures, often offering vague reassurance that “most men” see a quick improvement in continence after surgery – as if it would be wrong to frighten them too much. As more evidence becomes available to fill in the picture on complex decisions, it’s only right that it should be shared with those it affects most.