Prostate cancer, second only to lung cancer as a killer of American men over the age of 50, is a diagnosis most men fear to hear. Standard treatments include hormone therapy, radiation and surgery, but thousands of men are now also trying Chinese herbal medicine. CBS News Correspondent Thalia Assuras reports the combination of eight Chinese herbs, including saw palmetto, which is known as PC-SPES. That's "PC," for prostate cancer, and "SPES," the Latin word for "hope."
If detected early enough, and with the right treatment, prostate cancer can be survivable. But what is the right treatment? Doctors say there is no one right answer to that extremely important question. It all depends on a variety of factors, including the patient's own body.
University of California at San Francisco cancer researcher Dr. Eric Small, one of the authors of a study on PC-SPES says the herbs helped more than half of a group of patients whose illness had progressed to the point that they could not be helped by hormone therapy. Some patients turn to PC-SPES when other therapies have failed.
That was the case for Bob Timoney, who underwent surgery three years ago, only to have the cancer return just one year later. Timoney says that the second round of bad news forced him to make a very difficult decision: to turn to PC-SPES.
"The stark reality of confronting cancer said, 'Bob, you need to open up your mind to all kinds of possibilities,' " recalls Timoney. "Alternative medicine became a real possibility for me."
Science doesn't yet know as much as it might about PC-SPES, which means there are risks to the therapy. The known side effects can include impotency, decreased sex drive, and breast tenderness, all common conditions which are also risk factors of hormonal treatment. But Timoney isn't sorry he took the risk.
"I'm delighted with the results," says Timoney. "If you are a cancer patient, anytime you can achieve encouragement, hope, some kind of feeling that you're at least going somewhere, that's very important to you."
Cancer specialists and researchers caution that patients shouldn't just run out to their local health food store and stock up on the PC-SPES herbs without the supervision of a doctor with solid experience in treating the disease.
"In a sense, they (PC-SPES) really are drugs and I think they just need to be studied better and understood better to be used properly," says Dr. Robert DiPaola of the Cancer Institute of New Jersey.
The UCSF study, funded by the Association for the Cure of Cancer of the Prostate, found improvement in all of the men in the group of patients who took PC-SPES but had never undergone hormone therapy. Some even had shrinkage of tumors, according to Small. "I don't think there's any mystery as to whether it (PC-SPES) has cancer-fighting elements," says Small. "It clearly has that. The issue is: what are they?"
One of the tests used to evaluate the effectiveness of PC-SPES and hormone tretment of prostate cancer is the PSA test, the very same blood test that's used for early detection of the disease. The test led to the early diagnosis of the cancer now being fought by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
His case, and the open discussion of the disease by other celebrity patients including Yankees manager Joe Torre and former junk bond king Michael Milken, have improved awareness of the need for early detection while encouraging men to realize that they, too, can survive and thrive after hearing the words "prostate cancer" applied to them.
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