Prostate cancer is the second most diagnosed cancer in middle-to-older aged men, and in 2008 it was the second highest cause of death in males. Although older gentlemen are more prone to being diagnosed, of the roughly 186,000 diagnoses each year (The Promise), many young men faced with the disease choose powerful treatments which often carry with them several unintended consequences. These treatment options, such as surgery or chemotherapy can cause infertility and the inability to perform sexually (Prostate Gland). Over 60% of men opt for either surgery (30%) or chemotherapy (32%).
These two options, while effective, cause many severe side effects and can damage other areas of the body that are perfectly healthy (Patterns). While debilitating to men of all ages, there are several treatment options that have proven successful for prostate cancer, one of which has been deemed a medical breakthrough; it is called proton therapy. The technology was first tested in the 1950’s and was proved to be the best way to treat certain types of tumors and cancers located near sensitive areas of the body including the eye, base of the skull, and spinal cord (The Promise).
A machine uses nuclear technology and magnets to propel protons at two thirds the speed of light directly into a tumor or diagnosed area, causing massive damage to the cancerous cells. According to the American Cancer Society, there are virtually no symptoms for prostate cancer that can help men detect the disease early, which is why some people refer to this disease as the silent killer. The only sign of early onset prostate cancer is the urge to urinate more frequently, and as the cancer advances, blood may be detected in the urine (American).
While these two symptoms are sometimes present in non-cancerous problems within the prostate, a prostate-specific antigen, or PSA blood test, can usually determine if cancer is in fact present. This test, while extremely beneficial, can be less accurate if a patient is, among others, a bicycle rider, frequent user of Aspirin, or obese (American). Doctors suggest men begin annual prostate screenings at age 50, and age 45 for men who are deemed to be high risk.
Those considered high risk include African American men and men with a strong family history of one-or- more direct family members that were diagnosed with prostate cancer at a young age (Prostate Gland). Little is known about the cause of prostate cancer so there aren’t many preventative steps men can take to decrease their chances of getting it. Doctors have determined that certain activities or lifestyle choices may raise a man’s risk for contracting the cancer and they include eating a lot of red meat, being obese, smoking, and receiving a vasectomy earlier than the age of 35.
Maintaining a balanced diet and including foods high in antioxidants prevent some damage to DNA and could possibly prevent prostate cancer in younger men (American). Surgery to remove the prostate is called a radical prostatectomy, and is most effective for men who have been diagnosed with an early onset of the cancer (Prostate Cancer). The prostate is removed either by open surgery, where the doctor cuts through the lower stomach, or by laparoscopic surgery, in which the doctor makes a small incision in the stomach and inserts a viewing device to help complete the surgery (Outcomes).
Both of these surgeries pose many risks including erection problems due to the removal of nerves and tissue around the prostate that lead to the penis, urinary incontinence, and damage to the urethra. Recovery time is also fairly lengthy and uncomfortable for most patients; usually patients stay in the hospital post surgery for 2-4 days and after they are discharged, but must be attached to a catheter for up to 3 weeks. Many people also report loss of bladder control for months following the surgery, an extremely undesirable and unpredictable side effect.
The surgery does not guarantee that all of the cancerous tissue is removed, and those who have had it still need to get a PSA blood test every year, with biopsies as needed to examine suspicious tissue (Outcomes). X-ray therapy is another treatment option, and comes in the form of radiation therapy which is commonly used to treat cancerous cells. This type of therapy is efficient in destroying the cancer, but because the rays aren’t accurate and continue moving through the body until they exit, some of them are absorbed into surrounding healthy tissue.
The most common areas of the body that are damaged by this type of radiation therapy is the bladder and other surrounding organs (Proton Therapy). Radiation itself is a known cause of cancer and this risk may outweigh the benefits for some when selecting a treatment option. Aside from potentially damaging normal functioning tissue, X-ray therapy causes minimal side effects in its recipients similar to those of surgery, such as loss of ladder control, skin sensitivity, and infertility (Outcomes). Proton therapy, though a medical breakthrough, is a fairly unknown treatment option for many people. This is unfortunate because there are usually very few side effects and the accuracy of the protons is incredible. The proton therapy machine is able to destroy the cancerous cells while not harming any tissue as little as half a millimeter away, which greatly reduces the probability for side effects (The Promise).
Because of this, doctors are able to use higher doses of radiation to treat the cancer which raises cure rates and also lowers the risk for the cancer to re occur. The machine’s ability to precisely target the cancer or tumor is possible because the subatomic particles release the bulk of their destructive energy beneath the skin, at the tumor’s depth, rather than near the surface, as X-rays do. (Doctor’s set that depth by controlling the speed at which a proton is blasted at the skin. While standard radiation tends to cause damage to healthy tissues on the far side of the tumor, protons slow and stop as they release their energy pulse, which eliminates the harmful exit dose (The Promise). One clinical study conducted by the University of Florida included 98 men who were diagnosed with low, medium, and high risk prostate cancer. All were 55 years of age and older, the study determined that there were few significant side effects in the first 18 months after treatment (Young Men).
The doctor’s findings included that just 21 percent of patients experienced mild urinary side effects that were treated with prescription medication, 3 percent experienced mild gastrointestinal side effects that were treated with prescription medication, No patients experienced permanent incontinence, No patients experienced significant rectal side effects, and only 2 patients were dissatisfied with their treatment decision (Young Men). Further specialized studies are needed to confirm and strengthen these findings, as well as continued monitoring of a significant number or all of the patients who receive this treatment.
Another man from Oklahoma City named Stewart, was diagnosed with prostate cancer at just 41 years old. His doctor recommended the invasive surgical procedure, a radical prostatectomy, where an incision is made at the sternum and continues to the pelvis. The body is split open at that point and all tissue in the way is removed, as well as the prostate gland. The possible side effects for this type of surgery are very severe and Stewart and his wife had just had their first baby 10 weeks prior to his diagnoses and eventually wanted another child. The side effect they were most worried about was incontinence.
They went to another doctor for a second opinion and that’s where they heard about proton therapy. He and his wife decided that proton therapy would be a better option and he recovered quickly, following the standard 41 treatments, with no side effects. Soon after his treatments, Stewart and his wife got pregnant with their second child and he remains cancer free (Medical Miracles). There are negative aspects of proton therapy mainly because the facilities are very expensive to build, costing anywhere from 100-125 million dollars (Proton Therapy).
There are only 6 treatment centers in the United States, but there are several more centers currently being built and planned (Medical Miracles). This poses a problem because the facilities are unable to meet the demand for them. Also, because there are so few treatment centers, the procedure is very expensive, around 65 thousand dollars for the average 60 year old man, compared with standard radiation therapy which costs on average 40 thousand dollars (Proton Therapy).
Because the technology used in proton therapy far exceeds anything else available, and has been proved to be the best way to treat certain types of cancers and tumors, more steps should be taken to provide centers around the U. S. (Medical Miracles). One company, Still Rivers Systems, is working on a proton therapy system that would fit in just one room and cost around 20 million dollars (The Promise). If Still Rivers Systems is successful, they would solve the availability problem which would make the proton treatments more affordable, and could eventually make it a cheaper alternative to surgery and X-ray radiation therapy.
If proton therapy becomes a more common treatment to cure cancer, it would not only be safer, it could also reduce the need for overall costs of other after care procedures patients may require if they had chosen surgery or X-ray radiation therapy. While proton therapy may seem too good to be true, the success rates and overall happiness of most of the male recipients, including my grandfather, proves otherwise (The Promise, Young Men).