Prostate Cancer Awareness Month: A Q&A with Elisabeth Heath, M.D., FACP

The prostate is a walnut-sized organ located behind the bladder. It is part of the male reproductive system and is not present in women. Prostate cancer occurs when irregular cell growth takes place in this organ.

To get a better understanding of prostate cancer and its effects during Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, Elisabeth Heath, M.D., FACP, associate center director of Translational Sciences and leader of the Genitourinary Oncology Multidisciplinary Team at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute answered some questions about this disease.

What are some common misconceptions about prostate cancer?

There are a few different misconceptions. One is that getting checked means you’re “less of a man.” Some men are uncomfortable about the exam and the topic in general, so they ignore it but this fear can lead to late diagnosis and cause complications. When prostate cancer is caught early, outcomes are better because there are more treatment options available. That’s another misconception; people think that if you’re diagnosed with prostate cancer you’re going to die, which isn’t necessarily the case, especially with early detection.

What are some warning signs you should not ignore?

Any changes in urination should be checked out. Some men think that they’re just getting old and that changes are normal, but they may not be. If you’re getting up in the night multiple times, feeling like your bladder doesn’t empty completely or you have a decreased stream during urination, you should call your doctor. In more advanced stages, prostate cancer can have different symptoms like back pain, weight loss and fatigue.

Is there anything you can do to prevent prostate cancer?

There is nothing at this time that prevents prostate cancer but early detection can give you a better chance if you are diagnosed. Many men try to “wish away” the warning signs but it’s important to get checked if anything seems off. Catching cancer early is really important. Overall, a healthy lifestyle can reduce your risk of cancer. We recommend eating a heart-healthy diet, getting to or staying at a healthy weight and not smoking.

What is a PSA test?

PSA stands for prostate-specific antigen. This is a protein that gets released into the bloodstream and is only made by prostate cancer cells. PSA testing can be helpful and we encourage men to discuss the pros and cons of testing with a doctor.

How is prostate cancer treated?

It’s different for every patient. Sometimes, if the cancer is early and localized, we can do active surveillance or perform additional tests or biopsy. For other patients, surgery and radiation are the best courses of action. In some instances, we can use chemotherapy and when it becomes metastatic, everything is fair game, from immunotherapy to new agents such as PARP inhibitors.

What sets Karmanos apart when it comes to prostate cancer treatment?

We offer cutting edge and novel treatments. At Karmanos, we often see patients who have tried other treatments and are looking for different options. We have access to new treatments and clinical trials that many other centers do not. We also specialize in complex cases. Our team is experienced and creative; we’re ready to think about any option. Communication is another key element for us. We work closely with other national and international experts as well as primary care and referring doctors to make sure that patients get the care they need.

What’s new in the treatment and prevention of prostate cancer?

Genomic testing can be really useful in determining who’s at risk. It can reveal if the patient has genes that result in prostate cancer and if those genes might be inherited or affect other family members. We are also seeing improvements in imaging. PET (positron emission tomography) scans have improved so we can detect disease recurrence earlier. We are also seeing new drugs become available for advanced disease, which is very encouraging.

Why did you choose to specialize in this field?

I’m passionate about early drug development. In 2004, docetaxel chemotherapy was only the second drug approved to treat advanced prostate cancer. Now, there are nine or ten drugs that didn’t even exist when I did my training. The scientific field is moving quickly and presents opportunities to develop impactful treatment strategies. Expanding the menu of treatment options provide hope for the future.

Thank you, Dr. Heath, for sharing your insight and information about prostate cancer!

Elisabeth Heath, M.D., FACPElisabeth Heath, M.D., FACP