Harvard Perspectives on Prostate Disease

How to handle a relapse after treatment for prostate cancer

Editor in Chief Marc B. Garnick, M.D., discusses what biochemical recurrence means and what your options are

"Am I going to die?" This is the first question a patient usually asks me when a follow-up blood test reveals that his prostate-specific antigen (PSA) level has risen after he has already undergone treatment for prostate cancer (usually a radical prostatectomy or radiation therapy). The fear is understandable: When PSA levels rise to a certain threshold after prostate cancer treatment, the patient has suffered what is known technically as a biochemical recurrence, sometimes also referred to as a biochemical relapse or stage D1.5 disease. Whatever term is used, it means that prostate cancer remains within the prostate after radiation therapy, that it survived outside the excised area after radical prostatectomy, or that it has reappeared in metastatic form in other tissues and organs. In most cases the cancer remains at a microscopic level, and many years will pass before any physical evidence of it is detectable on a clinical exam or any abnormalities are seen on a bone scan or CT scan.

That's usually of small comfort to the patient whose PSA has risen. It's emotionally traumatic to go through treatment for prostate cancer, thinking it is cured, and then learn that it might have come back. For many men, it's as if they're dealing with another diagnosis of cancer, except this time it's much worse because there is less likelihood of getting cured. A man's confidence and sense of safety may be shattered, especially because the popular misconception is that when prostate cancer recurs, it is deadly.

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