Today we went to Medical Oncology and met again with the prostate cancer team leader. They must have heard of our discomfort about going on Abiraterone and sent along their best operative!
We’d met this charming fellow last year when he introduced me to two new drugs that turned out to be absolutely life-changing. So we had very good rapport and plenty of confidence in him. Especially when he said he was determined not to try to talk us into accepting a medication we were not quite happy about.
We canvassed the alternatives: chemo is an option but we had already decided that was not for us. Targeted radiation on the spine is a possible option if we don’t do anything else but the recent scans did not suggest that there was widespread cancer at this stage.
So we turned to Abiraterone. We worked through our dozen or so questions and were surprised to find that our consultant was a member of the team that did the first trials on Abiraterone seven years ago in UK. I had read of these on the internet and had been looking forward to finding more about it year by year ever since. He’d had extensive experience with hundreds of men using the drug, not just the limited numbers who have qualified for it in this country. It was no trouble for him to answer every question with illustrations out of that experience.
Serious side effects, he said, were virtually non-existent. It became clear that a lot of our misgivings about side effects and quality of life were, in his experience, not really appropriate. Benefits in slowing the growth of the cancer were not great but measurable. Extra life expectancy, yes, is only a matter of months.
We queried him about the advantage of commencing this drug when I have no significant symptoms of the cancer—beyond a couple of bouts of back pain recently. The fact that this month’s CT scan didn’t reveal any great advancement of the cancer in my backbone also made us wonder if this was an appropriate time to start this kind of medication. His view was that using Abiraterone while I am in good shape is more likely to give another year or two of good quality of life than delaying it until I need more frequent medication for pain.
Also, we found that we can control the amount of medication I take and he mentioned some ways in which I could get extra benefit from what I do take. And he thought that, if it turned out to be reasonably efficacious, we might plan for a course of up to twelve months. It would not be for ever. Indeed, he said, if the cure seemed to me to be worse than the disease, I could stop at any time.
He said that in selecting the limited number of men who may be suitable for this expensive medication, his team take into account the specific elements of the patient’s cancer and overall lifestyle. He reminded me that my cancer is only 7 out of 10 on the Gleason scale so it seems to offer a realistic target for further hormone treatment. He also suggested that my lifestyle, general fitness, knowledge and attitude would seem to make me a better candidate for the drug than many men half my age.
He even challenged me with the thought that it would be a good thing if the drug enabled me to continue to speak out about the issues of life and death which are becoming more and more part of my own personal experience. (Flattery will get you everywhere, I thought—but I will think about standing for the somewhat dysfunctional Village Residents’ Committee!)
As have all my friends, he urged us to keep the massive cost of this drug out of our deliberations. My ethical concerns about the disproportionate amount of the country’s Health budget that is spent on people at and above my age remain. But I know that if I decline this offer it will not actually make much difference to the health prospects of middle aged men with prostate cancer and it certainly won’t provide breakfast for a few more school children.
Certainly, life —and the NZ State—owe me nothing. At my birthday last week I passed the average life expectancy of NZ males. And we know that men with Metastatic Castrate Resistant Prostate Cancer (MCRPC) generally die within two years—I am halfway through that period already. In a sense we have nothing to lose. And perhaps I still have some good reasons to remain active and well.
So we have accepted a prescription and will make a start.
But chemo? — forget it!