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:

 

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