Prostate Cancer Screening At A Supermarket

It sounds like science fiction, but according to Mark Emberton, Professor of Interventional Oncology at University College London, prostate cancer screening could be coming to a supermarket near you.

10-minute scans

Professor Emberton is in charge of a clinical study which he’s hoping will transform prostate cancer screening. The $6.5 million trial, which started in August of 2019, stalled in the spring because of covid, but is now back on track. His team is looking at scans that take only ten minutes, which could potentially be rolled out to the general population.

I sat down with Mark to hear about his work.

Prostate cancer screening difficulties

In the UK, there are only a few nationwide screening programs, including breast cancer for women and bowel cancer for men.1 Prostate cancer is now the most-commonly diagnosed cancer in England, but nationwide screening has proved elusive, as it has such a poor diagnostic record.2

Traditionally, tests start with a digital exam followed by a PSA blood test, neither of which are particularly accurate or trustworthy. Around 75% of men with high PSA levels don’t have cancer, but about 15% with normal PSA levels actually do.3,4 I should know: when I was diagnosed with a malignant tumor, my PSA stood at just 5.03.

Read on.

Zoom call with the grim reaper

Well of course it wasn’t with the grim reaper, death is always reluctant to take calls, but it was with a friend who before too long is booked in for a consultation with the scythe-wielding, black-cloaked spoilsport. I may be pushing the analogy a little far, but you could say the grim reaper was hovering in the background.

An honest conversation with a good friend

My friend, an artist who I’ve known for many years, isn’t sure how long he’s got but isn’t expecting to host a birthday party next year. At 88 he’s in pretty good spirits and has enjoyed a full and vigorous life. Make no mistake though, his departure will leave a big hole in the lives of many. Shakespeare has a line in Anthony and Cleopatra: “Make death proud to take us.” Death should be honoured to take this proud man. Read on.

Proton Beam Therapy: A Survivor’s Story

Proton beam therapy is a hot discussion topic in this community and when I received an interesting note from Vickie about her partner’s proton experience, I knew I wanted to dig in and find out more.

What is proton beam therapy?

In very simple terms proton therapy is a type of radiation therapy that uses targeted beams of high-energy particles. It’s used to combat various forms of cancer particularly in children where cancer is located close to vital organs. The claims made for it are that it’s less likely to damage other organs and produces fewer side effects.

At first glance, it looks like a no-brainer, what could be better than a treatment that whacks the cancer and leaves the healthy organs intact?Unfortunately, it’s not that simple and the jury is out as to how effective proton therapy is at combatting prostate cancer. Read on…

Prostate Cancer is Top of the (Medical) Charts

Just this spring, we got the unwelcome news that prostate cancer is now the most commonly diagnosed cancer here in the UK. Men, we are top of the charts, though admittedly on one of the unlovliest hit parades in the world.

I may be clutching at straws, but there is an upside to this because it means many more men are coming forward to get tested and as we know; catch cancer early and your chances of survival look a whole lot better.

Everyone in the UK over 55 is screened for bowel cancer every two years, but there’s no such screening for prostate cancer because detecting it is so problematic. The PSA test just isn’t accurate enough for national screening.

I’m a case in point, when I was diagnosed with a sizable tumor in my prostate with a Gleason score of 4+3=7, my PSA was still only 5.03 which is barely above normal. We need better tests and right now a lot of work is being put into a pre-biopsy MRI scan. Read on…

This Year I Finally Got a White Christmas

It wasn’t just Bing Crosby who dreamt of a White Christmas. To this day my daughter bemoans the fact that as we live in the city center, we almost never get snow and have only ever seen two White Christmases.

I thought my prostate cancer recovery was going well

Even those of you who are entirely ‘Bah! Humbug’ about Christmas must admit that for about 30 minutes when the snowflakes fall a kind of magic happens and even the ugliest places are beautified. Admittedly after that half hour is up, the snow turns to a grimy slush, but I’ll settle for a few minutes of crystal white wonder, particularly on Christmas Day

Well, this year I got a White Christmas, but as the eagle-eyed among you will have spotted this sentence starts in the first person singular and not the third person plural — all will be explained.

Read on…

My number’s up

Ok calm down I’m not about to peg out, but I’ve just discovered that my PSA reading is up rather than on the smooth glide path down that I was counting on. I was at my quarterly meeting with the oncologist at Guy’s Cancer Centre when I was given the unwelcome news that the Unwelcome Guest has made a slight return.

But let’s put this into some perspective. The PSA blood test is a notoriously crude measurement but just about the only means available to check the state of prostate cancer particularly post-prostatectomy or in my case post-radiotherapy.

When the Unwelcome Guest was first diagnosed, my PSA level stood at 5.03. I was then put on hormone therapy and the dive down started. Within a month my PSA stood at 2.61. Six months later, in June, it was 0.8. Following radiotherapy last Autumn, a test in December revealed my PSA to be virtually undetectable at 0.07.

For it to be entirely undetectable it has to fall to 0.03 or lower and that of course was what I was hoping for, but the Unwelcome Guest had other ideas. Now I’m told the little bugger has bounced back up ever so slightly to 0.1. In itself this may not be serious, and doctors recognise something called the PSA bounce, with the numbers fluctuating, following radiotherapy. Hopefully this will correct itself, but if it continues to climb and were it to reach 2.0 then other medical options would have to be explored.

I can’t deny this was something of a shock as I was pretty convinced that while still on hormone therapy and following radiotherapy to misquote Yazz and The Plastic Population ‘The only way was down.’ But that’s the Unwelcome Guest for you; full of little surprises.

Prostate cancer that comes back is called a recurrence and happens in 1 in 3 men after treatment for early prostate cancer, but we are a long way from that and anyway if those are the odds on the table I’ll take ‘em.

My next appointment at Guy’s cancer theme park is in September and as you might imagine I’ll be paying pretty close attention to the scores on the doors. In the meantime, I’ll be doing what I’ve learnt to do since Autumn 2017 when I was diagnosed and live in the moment. Nothing bad is going to happen to me in the short term, we have a wonderful holiday to look forward to and then come September we’ll take a look at the lay of the land.

The war on cancer

Last week the newspapers were back to declaring war on cancer. Let’s hope it’s more successful than the war on terror. But this was welcome news; a new cancer hub known as the Institute for Cancer Research (ICR) is set to be located in south London close to the Royal Marsden Hospital. Researchers there will look at new ways to stop cancer cells from evolving and resisting chemotherapy. One of their goals is to ‘herd’ cells together and stop them from flourishing much in the way that drugs now control HIV. They are calling it the world’s first Darwinian drug discovery programme.

Senior scientists at the ICR argue that the traditional use of ‘shock and awe’ chemotherapy against cancer has failed because too often it has helped fuel ‘survival of the nastiest’ competition and evolution among cancer cells.

Dr Olivia Rossanese, head of biology, said: “We’re especially excited by the potential of APOBEC inhibitors, to slow down evolutionary diversity and drug resistance, and ensure our existing cancer drugs work for patients for much longer.”

Inhibitors are being designed to stop the action of a molecule called APOBEC to reduce the rate of mutation in cancer cells, slow down evolution and delay resistance. These drugs should become available within the next ten years.


Loss of confidence

By nature, I normally combine brutal confidence with a sunny disposition and a relatively good perception of my strengths and faults. As the French say, I’m comfortable in my skin. (Though they generally say it in French)

Recently that confidence seems to have taken a hit and initially I blamed the Unwelcome Guest.

When people learn you’ve got cancer, they immediately think you’re going to die and even if you’re not headed straight to the departure lounge, they tend to assume you spend all your time thinking about your mortality or lack of it.

Cancer changes people’s perception. Someone once said we all carry three words in our head to describe people we know. Whatever those three words are when people think of me, I’m pretty sure one of them is now cancer. I suspect this leads some to think I’m diminished in some way and unlikely to perform my job as effectively or be a generally high-functioning member of society. Cancer also coshes humour, stuffs it in a burlap sack and throws it overboard.

I’ve been too blessed in my life ever to be a victim and I’ll be damned if cancer is going to make me one now, but dealing with cancer is odd for those who’ve contracted it and for those who come into contact with it who are mostly thinking, thank God it’s not me. Cancer can be like water on limestone, a slow drip-drip of confidence erosion.

Part of my job is to get on my hind legs and talk to groups of people who then benefit from my enormous wisdom. Lucky sods. Unlike Mrs Preen who hates giving talks, I quite like it. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m a bit of a show-off.

Part of my cancer treatment is getting quarterly hormone shots which gives me a small insight as to what menopausal women have to endure. In short, I get hot flushes, flashes and sweats. A week or so after my first shot I was at a meeting at the Natural History Museum when suddenly, out of nowhere, I’m in a muck sweat. High temperatures seem to trigger these events and the summer is definitely worse but whatever the ambient temperature, I start leaking at least five times a day.

This is uncomfortable, unpleasant, but as I’ve said elsewhere if this is what it takes to boot out the Unwelcome Guest then so be it. No sweat you might say, but it’s not so great when it happens when giving a presentation to clients. Suddenly I’m melting in front of their eyes and I can see it’s as uncomfortable for them as it is for me. They’re thinking Jim’s either as nervous as a first date or having a heart attack, whatever their thoughts, dripping sweat from the eyebrows is not a great look.

On a more banal level, I’m also a bit Mutt & Jeff – too much loud rock & roll from a young age is the culprit there. Being hard of hearing also tends to sap one’s confidence, as if you don’t catch what people say, you just appear thick.

Don’t get me wrong this loss of confidence is by no means terminal and most days I’m just as arrogant, self-assured and opinionated as ever, but it does tend to gnaw.

As much as I’d like to blame the Unwelcome Guest for this intermittent confidence outage it might be as much about old age as cancer. I hit 65 this year, which in a peculiar way I’m quite looking forward to. My last socially significant birthday was 21 and that’s 44 years ago. Here comes retirement age, though I have absolutely no intention of retiring as I’ve always associated retirement with death. My Dad retired at 60 and was dead in eighteen months.

I may not be able to run as fast as I could, getting up from kneeling down requires a herculean effort and my prostate is shot, but I’m taking comfort in the words of PJ O’ Rourke: ‘Age and guile beat youth, innocence, and a bad haircut.’


Unwelcome Guest in arse kicking sensation

The Brexit box-set psychodrama seems to be reaching the season finale, but let’s forget about that and concentrate on good news. I am now officially the James Bond of prostate cancer – my PSA level is 0.07.

Yesterday’s appointment with the oncologist, following two months of radiotherapy and a year on hormone therapy, revealed my PSA level to be ‘virtually undetectable’. Take that Unwelcome Guest, you now almost don’t exist.

To complete the Unwelcome Guest arse-booting contest my PSA level needs to be 0.03 or lower. Then it is undetectable and, for a while at least, I join the NED club. (No evidence of disease)

Now I know the Guest might already be planning a come-back tour but right now the NHS seems to have bested the little bastard. So first a big PHEW from me and then a huge thank you to all the wonderful urologists, oncologists, radiotherapists, GPs and nurses who have nursed me through this horrible twelve months. Without exception they have been splendid, caring and often funny. Who can forget the time I told a doctor that cancer had come as a shock as both my parents had died from heart disease, only for him to reply: ‘Don’t worry Jim, you’re still way more likely to die from a heart attack’. Such comfort.

So what now? I still have two years of unlovely hormone therapy to endure. I’m aware that some find this therapy truly horrible, and while I’m not crazy about it, if this is what it takes to be rid of the Guest then I’m in. I’ll see the oncologist every four months and hopefully my PSA level will decline still further. If it were to rise above two, that would be a cause for concern and would require further treatment.

I’m aware this game isn’t over, but neither is it game over. With one bound Jim was free to fight another day. I’m seriously considering having a couple of light ales this evening.

Prostate Cancer UK

Anybody reading this blog in the UK who has prostate cancer will almost certainly know about Prostate Cancer UK. This is their mission statement:

‘Prostate Cancer UK has a simple ambition – to stop men dying from prostate cancer. Through shifting the science over the next 10 years to focus on radical improvements in diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and support, we will stop prostate cancer being a killer.’

I’ve just been doing some copy editing for their website, which is an excellent resource that answers many of the questions both sufferers and their families may have about this pernicious disease. You can get your Man of Men charity pin from them too. Check out the website, if you haven’t already, and support a worthy cause.


Stats Angst

I think I have Stats Angst. Given that I’m almost entirely innumerate this is hardly surprising; it took me three attempts to pass maths ‘O’ Level. Show me a spreadsheet of numbers and initially I panic and then my brain fogs up as the figures swirl in front of my eyes. Me and numbers, we don’t get along.

But the Stats Angst I’m talking about here is a little different and of course cancer related. Eagle eyed readers of this blog will know that I’ve been on hormone therapy for over a year and have completed a two-month course of radiotherapy.

My cancer or hopefully lack of it will be monitored in the coming months by a simple PSA blood test. The last reading taken in June came in quite low at 0.8. I’m due for the next test in a couple of weeks prior to seeing my oncologist. Obviously, I’m hoping the number is even lower as this figure becomes the benchmark in my efforts to boot out the Unwelcome Guest. Despite being told it’s unlikely, I’m now scared the damn thing will have gone up rather than down. Hence the angst.

When having a consultation with the oncologist, I never quite know how to pitch the words I choose. Inevitably, given my condition, treatment and side effects there’s a fair bit of urological chat. So, what do I say? If I talk about excreta or faeces, I sound like a first-year medical student. If I talk about poo, I sound blushingly coy, in effect using baby talk. If I talk about shit, I sound like an oik. Cancer, it’s not just your health you have to worry about, it’s your vocabulary too.

The oncologist should be able to tell me how the Unwelcome Guest and I are getting along and what my prognosis looks like. Of course, I’m hoping she’ll say the Unwelcome Guest looks like he’s had seven shades of shit kicked out of him. Or words to that effect.


 

I’m making a list, I’m checking it twice

Technically I was tidying but really I was rummaging through a cluttered cupboard in my home office. I like to think of this as my man-cave but in a small house in central London it’s more like a man-cupboard. The rummage produced a list. Now to he clear, I like lists – a lot because:

  1. They help me keep on top of work.
  2. Stop me forgetting things.
  3. And allow me the joy of putting a little tick next to a completed job.
  4. Some people cross things out once they’ve completed a job but that carries a huge risk of not being able to see what you’ve done. No serious list maker would stand for that.

Christmas is the time of year when lists come into their own, with Santa’s Naughty & Nice list setting the Gold Standard, though to be fair to the fat, bearded chap I check my lists a great deal more than twice.

Inevitably, given the nature of this blog, the list I’m talking about is a little less full of festive fun. Prior to my prostate cancer diagnosis, I’d spotted blood in my urine which prompted me to go to the doc and set me off on my cancer capers.

What I’ve not mentioned before is that two years earlier I had also been peeing a small amount of blood and had sought medical help. On that occasion, following various tests, I was given the all clear though not surprisingly the question: ‘did they miss something?’ has popped into my mind on more than one occasion.

Which brings me to my uncovered list which were the notes I took at the time during a consult with a urologist at Guy’s Hospital.

  1. Benign cyst on left kidney.
  2. Enlarged Prostate. May cause problems in later life.
  3. No sign of tumour or cancer.
  4. Blood (in urine) probably caused by prostate.
  5. CT scan of kidney in case ultrasound had missed anything, ruled out cancer.
  6. Blood should go away, can take drugs for prostate, but these can have side effects.
  7. CT scan 3rd September at St Thomas’ Hospital.

So, what to make of that? Well I’m certainly no doctor, but it looks like they did all the analysis necessary though of course the enlarged prostate is the giveaway. I love the idea that it ‘might cause problems in later life’. I’m pretty sure I had in mind when I was 80 or 90 not just two years down the track. Unfortunately, it looks like the Unwelcome Guest had already made a booking.

I suppose if I have a criticism it is that I should have been put on what is called Active Surveillance and monitored more closely.

I’d forgotten I’d had the CT scan on 3rd September which is my birthday, but remember feeling deliriously happy when I saw the urologist for the last time and was given the good news.

Two years later after I’d started again on the unlovely round of tests, I remember telling Mrs Preen I had a strong conviction there would be no free pass this time. Unfortunately, I was right.

But let’s keep the doom and gloom at bay at this time of year. I’m feeling fine and the radiotherapy side effect, needing to pee all the time, is gradually going away which means I’m sleeping more and feel less tired.

Given the nature of this post, I guess I’ve got to finish with a list, so I’d like to shower seasonal goodwill on all of the following:

  • Those who have their own Unwelcome Guest.
  • Loved ones of those who do.
  • Friends and family who worry about me.
  • And anyone else who’s along for the ride.

Happy Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year. I’ll be back at the start of our next solar orbit.