BY CARSON DESHEVY-RENOUF
Cancer is the uncontrolled division of abnormal cells. It is uncomfortable to hear about, uncomfortable to say and it provokes fear in those who have to battle it. Even though it is no longer a death sentence, the word is still a harbinger for long rounds of treatment and a barrage of medical terms.
There are many types of cancers, with prostate cancer being one of the most talked about. It is the third leading cause of cancer- related deaths in Canada, the most prominent cancer in men and is a disease that many people fight today. All cancers are in one way or another a fight for your life – an uphill battle for both patient and family that is most often not easily won. The treatments vary, and many assume that surgery or chemotherapy are the only options available. However, as technology advances that becomes less true.
Dr. Darin Gopaul, a radiation oncologist at the Grand River Regional Cancer Centre, gave a presentation recently at a meeting of the Waterloo-Wellington branch of the Prostate Cancer Canada Network (PCCN) on how far non-surgical options have come in terms of treating cancer. Gopaul’s position at the centre, according to him, is often mistaken as radiology. Radiation oncology, however, is an entirely different specialty, as it specifically deals with the treatment of cancer using ionized radiation (essentially focusing radiation on affected areas from either inside or outside the body). According to him, the cure rate of some non-surgical methods is comparable to those of surgery.
During his presentation, Gopaul addressed the panic that often comes from a cancer diagnosis. With the increasing number of available options for patients, “you don’t want fear to drive your decision.” Radiotherapy, active surveillance and medications, according to Gopaul, are the leading non-surgical treatments for those dealing with prostate cancer. Each option is tailored for different situations and severities.
“(Radiotherapy) comes in two flavours,” Gopaul said.
External beam radiation, as defined by the Canadian Cancer Society, is a painless treatment involving a machine (that) directs a beam of radiation through the skin to the tumour and a small amount of normal surrounding tissue.
Brachytherapy is a treatment that has two options, the first of which is permanent seed brachytherapy: a “low-dose-rate” treatment where small radioactive pellets that are about the size of a grain of rice are inserted en masse into the prostate to release the radiation over a period of time. The second is temporary catheter brachytherapy, which is a “high-dose-rate” treatment where a wire guiding catheters delivers relatively high levels of radiation to temporarily placed applicators in the prostate.
Medications are often overlooked and passed off as “par for the course” as far as cancer is concerned. In reality, they can play an integral part in the process of getting better. While some medications reduce symptoms, others can even delay the need for chemotherapy.
“New (non-chemo) drugs have been proven to extend the lives of those who have cancer that has spread (from the prostate),” Gopaul said.
Active surveillance is another viable option for any patient who is considered “low risk.” This method of treatment focuses more on regular checkups and tests on patients to ensure that their cancer does not become an issue.
“Some prostate cancers are indolent and may not need treatments,” Gopaul said.
Prostate cancer is often downplayed due to the impression that is given by some statistics. The current five-year survival rate for prostate cancer is 96 per cent, but the reality is that prostate cancer works slowly, and statistics are something that need to be evaluated carefully. With most cases present in men over 50 years of age, many people die of natural causes before the cancer reaches fatal stages. As the life expectancy of Canadians grows, we will see the true toll this cancer takes much more frequently.
As it stands, prostate cancer, like all others, is not something to be taken lightly. Whether you have been personally affected or have seen others around you going through the hardship that cancer brings, you can understand that the fight is not easy.
The PCCN Waterloo-Wellington division holds meetings the fourth Tuesday of every month at the HopeSpring Support Cancer Centre. If you’d like to get involved, or make a donation toward cancer research, you can do so through the Canadian Cancer Society under the “Get Involved” tab at www.cancer.ca.