Negotiating Surveillance and Long-Term Follow-up for Testicular Cancer
Steve Pake of Testicular Cancer Awareness Foundation offers insight about follow-up care for patients after testicular cancer.
The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) Guidelines are the bible by which Testicular Cancer patients are treated and managed. The follow-up care recommendations within these guidelines only goes out to 5 years, and even within those 5 years, there's been some significant adjustments to the recommendations over time. It's entirely possible that if you were diagnosed with testicular cancer within the past few years, that you might be able to make some adjustments to your follow-up schedules in favor of fewer scans or appointments, but what do you do after that? It's up to you and can go on a case-by-case basis. Here are some answers.
CHANGES TO NCCN FOLLOW-UP RECOMMENDATIONS WITHIN YEARS 1-5
The NCCN Guidelines are literally the most important guide for any cancer fighter or survivor to have, and the bible by which doctors should be treating their patients.
First off, there have been many, many changes to the NCCN follow-up recommendations since I was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011, and the latest testicular cancer guidelines (2-2017 as of this writing) states that "further study is required to define optimal follow-up durations." In other words, they just don't have the evidence to know what the best answer is here. What is too much and what's too little? Scan frequency has gone down quite a bit to minimize the risk of secondary malignancies from radiation exposure, especially from CT scans, but they don't have the evidence to know where the sweet spot is, thus making these follow-up schedules very much open to debate and negotiation. Yes, your follow-up schedules for testicular cancer are negotiable.
In my case, for Stage II non-seminoma good risk disease treated with both primary chemotherapy and the RPLND surgery, the changes to the follow-up recommendations have been significant. At the time of my diagnosis in 2011, the NCCN guidelines called for as many as 20 scans (chest x-rays) and follow-up appointments over 5 years. I was seen at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York who went above and beyond the guidelines, and I had a total of 27 chest x-rays over the years, with 18 of those coming in the first two years alone. Given I had the RPLND surgery, only one CT scan was needed 4 months post-op, and otherwise just chest x-rays for me.
As of 2017, how many scans are recommended by the NCCN guidelines for someone like me now?
Just 7, with 8th and 9th scans in Years 3 and 4 being optional, and no scans at all in Year 5. Granted, I'd still need a total of about 16 office visits, but that's still a whole lot less stressful than twenty-freaking-seven. When I first saw how significantly the NCCN follow-up recommendations had changed and how many fewer scans they were recommending these days, I about fell out of my chair, and then needed to go sulk in a corner for awhile. This is really great news, as it shows that, yes, treatments for testicular cancer really are highly effective and completely curative most of the time, and that there really isn't a whole lot to be afraid of, despite the unavoidable and unimaginable amounts of worrying that it brings patients. Most people are just fine after treatments. Thanks to our collective piles of chest x-rays and CT scans that have never shown anything for most over the years, testicular cancer survivors will have far fewer scans to worry about after treatments today, and that's a very good thing.
MAKING MID-COURSE SURVEILLANCE SCHEDULE ADJUSTMENTS
A part of me regrets not questioning so many scans, especially now that not even a third of those scans are required today, but that's water under the bridge at this point. It wasn't easy, to put it mildly, but I got through them all. If you were diagnosed with testicular cancer a few years ago, there's a chance that you might still be on a more scan-heavy schedule. If so, you might be able to modernize your follow-up schedule after review with your doctors. Here's what you can do:
- Download the latest NCCN guidelines by registering for free at the NCCN website. Navigate to the Guidelines section, then to Cancer by Site, and then Testicular Cancer to get to them. Find the follow-up table that's relevant for your cancer about midway through the document based on type (seminoma or non-seminoma), and then stage, treatment path, and level of treatment received, and pay close attention to the super-scripted notes. Review what the current follow-up recommendations are now, against what you're actually doing. It might be quite different.
- Review With Your Doctor. With how many scans they've pulled from the follow-up schedules in recent years, chances are you might not need nearly as many now, or perhaps you could just do chest x-rays for scans and skip any further CT scans at this point, followed by the usual history and physical, and blood tumor marker checks? No more CT scans, wouldn't that be nice? If you look very closely in the guidelines you'll also see that scrotal ultrasounds are now mentioned as well. Sound like something worth doing? It was for me, and I'll get to that below.
- Do What's Best For You, with Your Doctor's Blessing. Whether you're at the point of cutting yourself free from oncology care if you so choose, or are making mid-course corrections between 1-5 years out, do what's right for you, so long as your doctors are on-board with your plan. There's both "scanxiety" from the follow-up appointments, but also anxiety from not having them. I don't know of a single person that actually enjoys getting CT scans done, but some might have more anxiety without them. Be true to yourself and your needs. If you're struggling, it can be worth it to make adjustments, and still meet the standards for care.
Of course, now that I've made it through 5 years and twenty-seven freaking scans, I have the moment of revelation that maybe I should have asked more questions than I did, but most of these scans were in the first two years, and before the NCCN started pulling back on the number of scans required. What's done is done, and I'm happy to have exited my 5 years of active surveillance.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR POST 5 YEAR FOLLOW-UP PLAN
So, what to do after 5 years? Here's what I did.
You're the patient, you're the boss. You can do whatever you want to do after 5 years. If you feel like you're ready, you can opt to be formally discharged from oncology care, or if not, you can continue to be seen at whatever interval you're comfortable with. Your doctor will be more than happy to keep seeing you. It's up to you, and there's no right or wrong answer. The correct answer is whatever you're comfortable doing, with considerations for any specifics of your case, and that your doctors are on-board with.
For me, with good risk disease, primary chemotherapy and the RPLND which most people in my risk classification tend to skip, I just needed to be cut free. If I'd only had 7 to 9 scans and a dozen and change office visits over the years as opposed to 27 of them, maybe I'd still want annual follow-ups with my oncologist. Maybe I'd still want annual follow-ups had I skipped the RPLND, and I'm quite certain I'd still want them were I in a higher risk group. Instead, I've found myself totally and completely burned out emotionally from so many oncology office visits, and I just didn't want to have to keep going if there was no compelling reason to do so. I love my oncologist and he's a great guy, and my favorite oncology nurse (hello Trish!) has become a friend for life type with me, but I just needed to walk out of that office for once without another appointment scheduled. I really needed that like nothing else, otherwise everything would just keep perpetuating in my mind. I needed the closure of not having to go back, and so we developed a plan that supported that.
The first condition for my formal discharge from oncology care, both from my wife and from my oncologist, was the insistence that I have an annual physical exam done by my primary care every year. No problem there, and cancer survivors especially should have these done annually as it is. Next up, scans or no scans? For my stage of disease and level of treatments, one is more likely to see a false positive from a chest x-ray at this point than disease recurrence, and so I opted out of any more chest x-rays. I think 27 has been more than enough. Although my tumor markers (bHCG and AFP) had always been negative and resulting blood work not that useful, I elected to continue doing these. You're having blood work done at an annual physical anyways, so why not throw it in? Continuing with these tests are useful for catching a potential second primary testicular carcinoma that might have a slightly different signature, and that could be positive for these markers.
TESTICULAR ULTRASOUNDS. This is something that I'd highly recommend doing for every testicular cancer survivor out there at least annually. Testicular ultrasounds weren't in the NCCN guidelines when I was diagnosed with testicular cancer back in 2011 other than for initial workup, but they're included now for follow-up care as well, for obvious reasons. As with the above, testicular cancer survivors are at elevated risk for developing testicular cancer again on the other side versus the general population. If anything was ever going to catch this early, and give a heads-up that something is going on before there were symptoms or other signs, a testicular ultrasound is what could do it, and so this was a no-brainer thing to do.
DO A FULL HORMONE PANEL. It's not mentioned anywhere in NCCN, and not something that oncologists ever really pay much attention to, but get a full hormone panel done. Despite what doctors say about the other testicle "picking up the slack", there is literally no information out there to support that, and we survivors know very well that this isn't necessarily true. It's a given that we're far more likely to face hormonal issues as we age due to only having a single testicle. Almost nothing is known about male hormones, and we're pretty much on our own here. The more data points we have on ourselves, the easier it will be in the future to know what's going on, if and when hormonal issues do develop.
Why a full hormone panel and not just a testosterone level check? Some long-term testicular cancer survivors who are symptomatic of hypogonadism are finding not that their testosterone levels are too low, but rather that their estrogen levels are too high, and have had some success in being treated with estrogen inhibitors, rather than testosterone replacement therapies. Please note that this is all highly experimental reports from individuals within the testicular cancer community, and not from official studies, of which there are none to go on. The point is, just start collecting as much hormonal data about yourselves as you can now, as it will potentially be very useful later.
STICK WITH YOUR PLAN
Honor yourself, the doctors and nurses that helped you through your cancer treatments, and your family and friends that have been there for you as well, by sticking with whatever your agreed upon plan is. After the hell that so many of our bodies have been through fighting cancer, and the significant emotional investments made by so many supporting us, we owe it to ourselves to do everything we possibly can to maintain the best possible health for ourselves going forward. A big part of that is having an annual physical done, and should be a part of every cancer surveillance exit plan.
I'm happy to say that I just had my annual physical, and that it went very well. My cholesterol, HDL/LDL levels and ratio were all good, as was my blood pressure and fasting glucose levels. A few things that have been messed up since fighting cancer are still messed up, but stable. My creatinine levels have been 1.4-1.6 since cancer (normal was around 1.0 before), due to some damage to my left kidney sustained from chemotherapy, and then a complication from the RPLND surgery didn't help it out at all. My platelet levels also run low at around 100, which is due to some permanent bone marrow damage also due to chemotherapy. None of that has changed in years, and it's good to know that.
One thing in my CBC report has tracked a bit high, but that's always correlated with my weight, and I've vowed this year to finally lose every last "cancer pound" I'd ever gained. Before cancer, I was around 240-250 pounds, which was considered to be a good weight for me considering my significant height of 6'3", and my large frame. Because of how chemotherapy, steroids, and surgeries had all affected me while fighting cancer, I ballooned all the way up to 300 pounds as I exited MSKCC in New York after my RPLND surgery. Due to chronic post-cancer fatigue from chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy, I could never exercise hard enough in my first few years after cancer to burn that off. My weight has floated around 270 pounds for the past few years, but running helped me to get beyond my fatigue issues, and there's no excuse anymore.
I refuse to turn 40 later this year in anything other than the best shape of my life. When we Scorpios commit to something, we're either all-in 110% or don't bother, and so I'm all in with a gym membership and regular exercise, a strict diet and paleo foods, and all that. This will happen. Turning 40 will be the start of a new era and decade for me, and this baggage from cancer, including the residual flab on my sides, is not going to be a part of that.
At the time I walked out of my oncologist's office for hopefully the last time ever back in June of 2016 (knocking on wood), I wasn't able to really feel or appreciate that moment at the time due to so many other things going on in our lives. As I'm typing this now, over a half year later, I'm finally feeling that emotional release and tears of joy from this for the first time, and the relief of such an enormous burden in my life having been lifted.
I just couldn't accept having to keep seeing an oncologist every year for the rest of my life. I've finally made it. I know how quickly things can change, and am going to keep living my life exactly how I've learned to LIVE it after cancer, but this is done now.
I'm finally free, and I can't wait to see so many friends and connections I've made in the testicular cancer community finally reach this huge milestone, too.