'It saved my life': The new tech saving prostate cancer patients from futile surgery

New research shows high-tech scan technology could save prostate cancer patients from unnecessary surgery.

It's currently only available privately, but there are calls to make it publicly funded.

Robert Scanlan went to his GP about an ankle injury. While he was there his doctor insisted on a full check-up. It's lucky he did, because it revealed he had cancer.

Hospital CT and MRI scans showed the cancer was confined to his prostate, but an advanced PSMA/PET scan revealed a different picture - it had spread.

"My feeling is it definitely saved my life, because they wouldn't have known about it in my bones and my lymph nodes, so then they would have been treating one thing and there was two other things," says Mr Scanlan.

Because the cancer had spread, undergoing invasive surgery to remove his prostate would have been futile. Instead, he was put on a course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Dr Remy Lim has recently completed a two year PSMA/PET scan study at Mercy Radiology, funded by the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

It found one in four men with high-risk prostate cancer were saved from invasive surgery which wouldn't have cured them.

"This scan has a very specific peptide called Prostate Specific Membrane Antigen, which attaches itself to prostate cancer cells and tells us that there is indeed spread in lymph nodes or bones.

"You won't get that from scans in the public hospital currently."

The Prostate Cancer Foundation says the savings far outweigh the cost, and it should be available through the public health system.

"For an investment of a scan of $2900, there's a saving of over $30,000 just in the cost of surgery - plus there's also the benefits to the patient that doesn't have to go through surgery," says Graeme Woodside, Prostate Cancer Foundation CEO.

Surgery to remove the prostate can have serious side-effects including incontinence and impotence, so should only be carried out in patients for whom it will be curative.

"The recently established National Urological Cancers Working Group will be considering the evidence around PMSA/PET and may make recommendations about its use in the New Zealand setting," National Clinical Lead for Cancer Dr Suzanne Beuker says.

"Until that time, the decision to fund PMSA/PET is made by individual DHBs."

Key prostate cancer facts:

  • Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in men with one diagnosed every three hours.
  • Two Kiwi men die from the condition each day.
  • Finding it early can save lives but not all prostate cancer needs to be treated.
  • Getting checked can be as simple as getting a blood test.
  • The chance of getting prostate cancer increases with age. 
  • There is a greater risk if a close family member had prostate cancer.