By Ralph Blum
When your primary care physician suspects that you have prostate cancer, your first, and arguably most important task, is to find a specialist who is skilled at diagnosing and treating the disease, and with whom you have a good rapport. Meaning, you feel comfortable with that doctor.
Usually your primary care doctor will refer you to an urologist for a definite diagnosis, but before you take this step you need to be aware that all urologists are not created equal. Most urologists—aka surgeons— have a medical practice at least half of which involves treating problems like impotence, incontinence, infections, and kidney stones. The majority perform only a handful of prostate surgeries annually. So ask your primary care doctor if he can recommend an experienced urologist in your area who specializes in treating urologic cancers.
If you are uncertain about your doctor’s referral or want to go beyond your local area to find a urological specialist—perhaps in a larger hospital or major medical center—just remember that you have time. It’s a good idea to take several weeks to network with friends who’ve been through it and support groups.
By all means, do research on the Internet. Make sure that you select a specialist with extensive experience. By consulting “Dr. Google” you can locate the best prostate cancer web sites and doctors. And under the heading “Resources” on the Prostate Cancer Research Institute web site (pcri.org) you will see a section called “Finding expert physicians.”
The kind of urologists you want will thoroughly discuss all appropriate treatment options with you—radiation, seed implants, different kinds of surgery available—in an even-handed manner. If board certified, they are obligated by law to do so. And if, for example, you express interest in radiation, they will refer you to a radiation therapist to discuss that option. But unless your age or physical condition make it inappropriate, most urologists likely to recommend surgery. Surgery is, after all, their specialty.
Regarding radiation, the latest studies (although not perfect) indicate that for most men, either permanently implanted radioactive seeds or intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) are at least as effective as surgery, with similar cure rates, and are, in most cases, performed without the risks associated with a major surgical procedure.
You should also, if you can locate one, consult with a medical oncologist who specializes in treating prostate cancer. Not being directly involved in either surgery or radiation, these specialists are not as likely to have any bias in their recommendation.
Whichever specialist you consult there are a few basic questions it’s a good idea to ask:
- How long have you been treating prostate cancer patients with this treatment?
- How many prostate patients have you treated? How many radical prostatectomies and robotic procedures have you performed?
- Why do you recommend this particular treatment for me?
- What are the possible side effects of this treatment?
- What are your success rates for patients with a diagnosis similar to mine?
The following questions which, since they all relate to surgery, apply only to a urologist:
- How many prostatectomies do you perform each year?
- What is your success rate with the preservation of sexual potency
- What about urinary continence? How frequent is it? How do you deal with it?
- Do you perform nerve-sparing surgery? (Nowadays most surgeons do.)
- Do you perform robotic surgery? If so, how many robotic procedures have you performed to date? (Anywhere up to 150 procedures, and you are still part of a surgeon’s learning curve.)
- What percentage of your patients are approximately my age?
This last question is important because if you are in your 50s and most of the doctor’s patients have been over 70, he may be less knowledgeable about preserving your potency and continence than a doctor who treats more men of your age.
Choosing the right specialist is a decision that will have a significant effect the rest of your life. So I repeat, take your time. And make sure that the doctor you choose gives you confidence that the treatment he recommends will be successful.
Article originally posted November 22, 2011, on Prostate Snatchers: The Blog, by Ralph Blum
About Ralph Blum (1932-2016):
Ralph H. Blum was a cultural anthropologist and author, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University with a degree in Russian Studies. His reporting from the Soviet Union, the first of its kind for The New Yorker (1961—1965), included two three-part series on Russian cultural life. He wrote for various magazines, among them Reader’s Digest, Cosmopolitan, and Vogue. Blum has published three novels and five nonfiction books. He lived with prostate cancer, without radical intervention, for twenty years.