Medical Technology

Surprise Disbelief, Surprise: NCCN Changes Prostate-Cancer Guidance

For over a decade, the influential National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) has been recommending that men with low-risk prostate cancer be offered active surveillance as the lone “preferred” initial treatment option.

But the NCCN has now reversed this long-standing recommendation in the latest revision of its prostate cancer guideline.

The organization now recommends that low-risk disease be managed with either active surveillance or radiation therapy or surgery, with equal weight given to all three of these initial options.

The change is seen by some as a retreat to the past and was harshly criticized by many experts on Twitter. The complaints were voiced in unusually blunt and strong language for physicians.

“This is a terrible step back that impacts every urologist,” commented John Griffith, MD, of Hartford Healthcare, who practices in New Britain, Connecticut.

Griffith explained that he prints out the NCCN guidance with “every patient newly diagnosed” and that the preferred designation is a “huge help” in reassuring them about not treating low-risk disease initially.

In a Twitter thread, Benjamin Davies, MD, of the University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, facetiously wondered if a time warp was at play: “To suggest for a millisecond that active surveillance isn’t the preferred method for low-risk men is bizarre thinking…Is this 1980?”

“I’m baffled,” said Brian Chapin, MD, of MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas, in another Twitter thread.

“This is ludicrous,” said Andrew Vickers, PhD, of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City in a tweet.

Alexander Kutikov, MD, of Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, commented on Twitter that the change “seems off the rails…a bit stunned by this.”

Matthew Cooperberg, MD, of the University of California San Francisco, and Minhaj Siddiqui, MD, of the University of Maryland in Baltimore both called the move a “step backward.”

Many others also expressed disappointment in the NCCN, whose guidelines are hugely influential because of the role they play clinically as well as with payors and the legal system.

“A huge setback & frankly a disgrace for @NCCN and its processes,” commented Fox Chase’s Kutikov.

Stacy Loeb, MD, of NYU Langone Health in New York City, suggested the new guidance may stunt use of active surveillance in the United States. She tweeted: “The updated NCCN guideline certainly won’t help the lagging and heterogenous uptake of active surveillance in the US. We should be carefully expanding the pool for active surveillance, not narrowing it.”

The purpose of active surveillance is to avoid adverse events from treatment, which can be life-changing as they include incontinence and erectile dysfunction.

The rationale is that many men with low-risk prostate cancer may not need treatment for their disease, as the disease may be slow-growing and may never threaten their life. With active surveillance, men are instead monitored with blood tests, scans, and biopsies to watch for worsening disease, and treated only when there are signs of disease progression/metastasis.

This active surveillance approach has grown in acceptance among American patients since 2010.

The concern now is that the change in guidance from the NCCN will lead to a reduction in active surveillance, and an increase in initial treatment with surgery and radiotherapy for low-risk disease, which is considered by many to be “overtreatment’ of this disease and may not be medically necessary.  

For example, UCSF’s Cooperberg said he feared that the changed guidance “will be used by urologists and radiation oncologists to justify overtreatment of low-risk disease.”

Kutikov agreed but described that possibility differently, citing the risk of lawsuits. He observed that without the NCCN’s “medico-legal buffer” of active surveillance as the preferred initial treatment, there are “further incentives” for overtreatment.

The new NCCN guidance also conflicts with the American Urological Association’s guidelines and dissolves what was once a mostly united front from the two major organizations on active surveillance and low-risk disease.

The AUA Guideline reads: “Clinicians should recommend active surveillance as the preferable care option for most low-risk localized prostate cancer patients (Moderate Recommendation; Evidence Level: Grade B)

Patients Protest Change in Wording

Not surprisingly, the revised NCCN guidance was criticized by multiple patient advocacy groups, including Active Surveillance Patients International (ASPI), which wrote a letter to the NCCN protesting the change.

In that letter, the ASPI writes that active surveillance is now chosen as the initial approach for low-risk prostate cancer in about 90% of cases in some European nations, and in about 50% of cases in the United States. It also warns that eliminating the word “preferred” from the NCCN guidelines represents a retreat, and “will have repercussions far beyond what we may first conceive.” 

“Active surveillance should be the preferred choice to preserve quality of life for men with low-risk cancer,” the advocacy group states. “The PIVOT trials indicate for low-risk disease there is basically no advantage to intervention. Why would one risk the side effects if they knew that?”

Why Now?

The NCCN’s move to alter its low-risk prostate cancer guidance is especially striking because, 11 years ago, the NCCN broke new ground in recommending active surveillance as the sole initial treatment option for low-risk men. (It was also the first guidelines group to recommend the same for very low-risk men.)

So why the change now? Medscape Medical News requested, but did not receive,  comment from the NCCN and its chair of the Prostate Cancer panel, Edward Schaeffer, MD, of Northwestern University in Chicago.  

However, on Twitter, Schaeffer hinted at what had turned the tables for the NCCN panel — the risk that, over time, some men with low-risk disease who are on active surveillance are reclassified on biopsy as having a higher risk.

He highlighted a 2020 study on that very subject from the University of California San Francisco, published in the Journal of Urology. Those authors concluded that: “Given the heterogeneity of the disease, some tumors characterized as low risk may merit early treatment while others may be followed much less intensely over some time interval.”

Schaeffer tweeted: “I think this nicely sums up the low-risk space…”

Experts reacting to Schaeffer’s tweet were not swayed.

Looking at additional measures such as genomic scores and PSA density, as advocated by Schaeffer via the posted 2020 study, is good for assessing individual risk, “but still, active surveillance is the preferred option for low risk,” said MD Anderson’s Chapin.

UCSF’s Cooperberg, who was a co-author on that 2020 Journal of Urology paper,  commented that the university’s urology department had “spent the past quarter century arguing active surveillance is ‘preferred’ for almost all low risk [disease]!”

“Many on active surveillance need treatment someday, but that does not justify immediate overtreatment,” he concluded.

Nick Mulcahy is an award-winning senior journalist for Medscape, focusing on oncology, and can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter: @MulcahyNick

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