Robotic surgery is now very well established as a leading treatment option for prostate cancer. In suitable patients, it is likely to provide the best long term quality and quantity of life. Even in men with relatively advanced disease (high risk/locally advanced) prostate cancer, robotic surgery offers a speedy recovery with excellent long term survival. However, a relatively under appreciated advantage of this technique is its ability to delay or avoid the need for hormone therapy in a large number of patients with prostate cancer.
Hormone therapy (androgen deprivation therapy in medical jargon) implies removing the male hormone, testosterone from the body by either removing its site of production (surgical removal of both testes, also called surgical castration) or suppressing it with regular injections (medical castration). Since, prostate cancer cells are dependent on testosterone for their growth and spread, this removal or suppression of testosterone in the body generally brings about a decrease in the amount of cancer and keeps the disease under control for a duration of time ranging from months to a few years.
However, hormone therapy takes a significant toll on the body by way of many short and long term complications. It causes fatigue, loss of muscle mass, loss of bone strength which may cause fractures, depression, loss of sexual function and a general slowdown of physical and mental functions. In the long term, it can lead to an increased susceptibility to develop diabetes, high cholesterol and weight gain. It has also been shown recently to increase the chances of having a heart attack or stroke in the future. In fact, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and American Heart Association (AHA) have issued a warning advising a judicious use of hormone therapy in patients with prostate cancer and weighing the risks and benefits before starting this treatment in all patients.
Patients who undergo radiation therapy for prostate cancer also have to take hormone therapy ranging from 6 months to 3 years depending upon the stage and type (grade) of the disease. This is because radiation alone (without hormone therapy) has much inferior results as compared to surgery in most patients with prostate cancer. This addition of hormone therapy to radiation therapy, unfortunately, exposes patients to the combined onslaught of complications and problems associated with radiation as well as hormone therapy.
For suitable patients, choosing to undergo surgery may be the best way to avoid many of these complications, thereby leading to the best possible preservation of quality and quantity of life. While hormone therapy may need to be given even after surgery in certain situations, it has been shown that even in men with a relatively advanced disease (high risk/locally advanced prostate cancer), hormone therapy can be avoided or delayed in more than 50% of patients by choosing to undergo surgery for prostate cancer. Even if hormone therapy is required after surgery, it can be given in an on-off fashion (intermittent androgen deprivation therapy), thereby avoiding a continuous harmful exposure to the body for a long time.
So, while there will always be certain short term problems and risks associated with undergoing surgery, robotic surgery for prostate cancer may be the best treatment option for most patients with prostate cancer – especially in view of the recent realisation in the medical community that hormone therapy for prostate cancer may not be as innocuous as previously thought by many of us !
Dr Gagan Gautam is the head of urologic oncology and robotic surgery at Max Institute of Cancer Care, New Delhi, India. He is one of the leading specialists for prostate cancer treatment in India and is closely involved in the care, counselling and surgical treatment of patients with this disease.