First the discouraging news: According to experts, all men—if they live long enough—will ultimately develop prostate cancer.
But take heed. There is encouraging news as well, in the form of new ways to combat what can become a deadly form of cancer. One of the newer and most promising treatments for prostate cancer utilizes a "vaccine" that stimulates the body's own immune system, which in turn rallies to fight prostate cancer that has traveled from the affected gland in the male reproductive system into areas that are life-threatening: the lungs and the bone.
According to Dr. Mohamed Farhat, MD, of Michiana Hematology Oncology in Crown Point, the name of the medication is Provenge, and it involves a slow draw of blood from the prostate cancer patient, a processing of the blood that virtually makes the patient's own blood cells into a vaccine to fight the invading cancer cells—and finally a return of the treated, activated blood back into the patient to do its job. "It's cutting edge medicine," says Farhat, who says he is very excited by the whole idea. "The treatment is a personalized way to target the cancer," he explains.
Farhat paints a picture of the male body as not very good at recognizing, detecting and fighting invading cancer cells from the prostate. Provenge makes the male body's immune system more "aware" and more able to focus on, and attack, the cells.
"By taking the blood out and utilizing the same blood when it's put back in, that's the beauty: you're using your very own blood," Farhat says. "The cancer cell is a 'smart' cell. Provenge reactivates the immune system in the patient to fight those 'smart' cells."
Farhat says other treatments are inferior for invasive prostate cancer. These include anti-hormone therapy that fights the male hormone testosterone—a hormone that can stimulate the cancer cells and make them grow and become more aggressive. And of course, there is chemotherapy—which Farhat says he "hates" because it kills so much more inside the body than just the cancer.
"The side effects of Provenge are minimal compared to chemotherapy," he says. Using Provenge involves only six days of treatment over a six-week period. There are three blood draws, one every two weeks, which can take up to a few hours each. The blood has to be drawn "just so" so that it is in a form that allows for optimal processing. Then there are three days needed, also one every two weeks, for the infusion of the treated blood back into the patient. The infusion process can cause flu-like symptoms.
The cost is covered by insurance and by Medicare. And it is all approved by the FDA.
As far as results, Farhat is quite excited. Studies show Provenge prolongs life by 4.1 months, on average. Which doesn't sound like much. But put in other ways, the results garner a more positive perspective. Farhat says using Provenge—which is generally used after hormone therapy but before chemotherapy—reduces the risk of death from prostate cancer by 22 percent. "Also, 37 percent more men are alive after three years," says Farhat, as a result of using Provenge.
This model of removing blood, Farhat explains, treating it and turning it into a medication that can fight cancer is starting to be studied and developed for other types of cancers, as well, such as lung and breast cancer. And that excites him, too. "It's a matter of fighting cancer using 'You,'" Farhat says.