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Blacks with advanced prostate cancer fared surprisingly well in 2 new studies

Retiree Westley Sholes' first prostate cancer scan were suspicious, and the second, three months later, detected early cancer. That was 20 years ago. Sholes had surgery and is doing wel. | AP

African-American men with advanced prostate cancer fared surprisingly well in two new studies that challenge current thinking about racial disparities in the disease.

Blacks are more likely to get prostate cancer and to die from it than whites, but the new research suggests getting access to the same treatment might help balance the odds — even if it doesn’t greatly extend life after cancer has spread.

And, given the same standard treatments, blacks with advanced disease might do even better than whites, the studies suggest.

Both were presented in Chicago at the recent annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

The lead author of one study, Susan Halabi of Duke University, said the results “are contrary to the mainstream understanding” that blacks fare worse than whites with prostate cancer. Halabi said the analysis highlights the importance of minorities participating in medical studies.

Her report pooled results from nine studies in the United States, Europe and Asia. It focused on the more than 7,000 whites and 500 blacks with advanced prostate cancer who had stopped responding to hormone therapy. The men’s average age was 69, and most had cancer that had spread to their bones. All were treated with standard chemotherapy.

The analysis found that black men fared at least as well as whites, with both groups surviving nearly two years after starting treatment.

But the researchers found a slight survival advantage for black men — they were about 20 percent less likely than whites to die — when taking into account patients’ individual characteristics including tumor type and levels of PSA, a blood protein that can be elevated in cancer.

That African-Americans might do even better underscores the need to dig deeper to find out why, researcher Susan Halabi says. | Duke University
That African-Americans might do even better underscores the need to dig deeper to find out why, researcher Susan Halabi says. | Duke University

That African-Americans might do even better underscores the need to dig deeper to find out why, Halabi said. She said it’s possible that black men who enroll in prostate cancer studies are healthier than other patients or might have biological differences that make them respond better to treatment.

The results suggest that access to care is key, according to Dr. Richard Schilsky, the society’s chief medical officer. If men are diagnosed later and not treated as quickly or as well, “of course, the outcomes are going to be worse,” Schilsky said.

A separate, smaller study, led by Duke’s Dr. Daniel George, compared the prostate cancer drug Zytiga with the steroid prednisone in 50 black men and 50 whites whose cancer had spread. The drug stopped cancer from spreading further for about 17 months in each group, on average. But declines in PSA levels, considered a promising sign, were greater in black men.

Blacks also had different side-effects — less high blood pressure but more trouble with low potassium levels.

Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Zytiga’s maker, paid for the study but was not involved in the research.

Genetic testing in the study found racial differences that might make blacks respond better to Zytiga than whites, and the results suggest the drug might have a greater benefit if started earlier, before cancer has spread, George said.

Dr. Robert Dreicer, an expert for the cancer group who is a University of Virginia cancer specialist, said more research on genetic differences might lead to new, more effective treatments for black men.

Dr. Adam Murphy, a Northwestern University physician who studies racial disparities in prostate cancer, said some reasons for low black enrollment in studies include poor overall health, money and mistrust of the medical establishment.

Dr. Adam Murphy. | Northwestern University
Dr. Adam Murphy. | Northwestern University

“We just need more patients enrolled,” said Murphy, who has done research linking low Vitamin D levels to aggressive prostate cancers.

Denial also leads some men to delay seeking any kind of treatment, but Westley Sholes, 78, a retired health care manager in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, said he decided to be proactive after his father was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer.

Sholes says he asked his doctor to do repeat scans. Results from the first were suspicious and the second done three months later detected early cancer. That was 20 years ago; Sholes had surgery and is doing well.

He credits good health insurance, excellent treatment and educating himself about the disease.

“Of course, I was scared,” Sholes said. “I had topnotch awareness, and the awareness overrode the reluctance to do something.”

Lindsey Tanner, AP Medical Writer