Every year in Canada, over 20,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer. Those diagnosed with this illness inevitably have many questions about treatment and prognosis but the good news is that the answers are getting better.

When a disease is this common, even if you are not a part of the vulnerable demographic, someone important to you almost certainly is. “Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men after skin cancer,” says Movember Foundation CEO Owen Sharp. “One in seven men in Canada will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime. It’s not that hard to think of seven men in your life and the fact that statistically one of them is going to be diagnosed with prostate cancer.”

Early diagnosis, better prognosis

While early diagnosis means that many cases of prostate cancer are not immediately threatening, advanced late-stage prostate cancer still kills thousands of Canadian men each year. Scientific advancements, however, are helping the mortality rate drop even as the number of diagnoses rises. “The survival differences we are seeing are dramatic,” says Dr. Bobby Shayegan, Head of Surgical Oncology at St. Joseph’s Healthcare. “We’ve seen a median survival improvement for metastatic prostate cancer in the range of 17 months in recent years. On average, people are going from living 33 months, to 50 months.”

One of the largest reasons for the improvement in survival rates is the development of new drugs for treating advanced cancers — particularly those that have become metastatic, castration-resistant, or both. “We’ve gone from famine to feast,” explains Dr. Shayegan. “We had nothing, and now we have such a wide array of drugs that the question becomes what is for who and when. 10 years ago I didn’t have any of these options. We now have a plethora of treatments, depending on what clinical state the patient is in.”

An increase in quality of life

What used to be a death sentence is often now a very treatable condition. To achieve the best results men need to engage with their health care providers at every stage and be active participants in their treatment. “We need to encourage clinicians to have honest conversations,” Sharp says. “We also need to help men understand how they can manage the impact of cancer on their life.”

That last bit is important. As with any disease, a good treatment is not just one that increases median survival, it is also one that makes that extra lifespan worth having. For many prostate cancer patients with advanced disease, living better is just as important as living longer. Increasingly, they are getting to have both. “There’s a significant light at the end of this tunnel,” notes Dr. Shayegan. “We can’t cure patients with advanced metastatic prostate cancer, but we can increase their lifespan and improve their quality of life.”

In the last fifteen years, mortality from prostate cancer has been cut in half. That’s an incredible success story, but no one is resting on their laurels. “At Movember, we’re working towards the goal of further halving the number of men dying of prostate cancer by 2030, as well as significantly reducing the impact the disease has on our lives,” Sharp says. “If we keep pushing on, our sons and our nephews will not have to fear this disease to the same degree that we have.”