HEALTHY LIVING

Watchful Waiting: Ian McKellen's 'Active Surveillance' Approach To Prostate Cancer, Explained

12/11/2012 02:46 pm ET

Actor Sir Ian McKellen, who will appear in the upcoming movie "The Hobbit," has announced that he has been battling prostate cancer for the past "six or seven years," according to news reports.

However, he isn't actually being treated for the cancer right now, and is instead employing the "active surveillance" approach, the Daily Mirror reported.

"When you have got [cancer] you monitor it and you have to be careful it doesn't spread. But if it is contained in the prostate it’s no big deal," McKellen, who is 73, told the Daily Mirror. "Many, many men die from it but it's one of the cancers that is totally treatable so I have 'waitful watching.' I am examined regularly and it's just contained, it's not spreading. I’ve not had any treatment."

Prostate cancer -- which is cancer that forms in the prostate -- is different from some other cancers because it does not always grow quickly and spread easily.

In fact, for some men, prostate cancer can grow slowly and stay in the prostate gland region, causing no serious symptoms or doing any harm to the man when in the early stages, the Mayo Clinic reported. For these men, watchful waiting may be a better option than surgery or cancer treatment; the Mayo Clinic explains what exactly it entails:

In watchful waiting, regular follow-up blood tests, rectal exams and possibly biopsies may be performed to monitor progression of your cancer.

The New York Times reported that about 10 percent of men diagnosed with early stage prostate cancer will opt for watchful waiting.

While research is far from complete on the topic, some studies have suggested that the life-extension benefit of prostate cancer treatment may not be that much more than if you just carefully watched the tumor, Men's Health reported. Specifically, a study from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research scientists showed that over a 20-year period, 2.8 percent of men who chose "watchful waiting" would die, compared with 1.6 percent of men who would go under the knife to have their cancer removed.

And in another study in the New England Journal of Medicine from University of Minnesota researchers, it was found that the survival rate from prostate cancer was not statistically different between men who had prostate removal surgery and those who just underwent watchful waiting, the New York Times reported.

"Men have a strong belief that if they are diagnosed with cancer, they will die from the cancer if it's left untreated, and they believe that treatment will cure them," study researcher Dr. Timothy J. Wilt told the Times. "This study adds to growing evidence that observation can be a wise and preferred treatment option for the vast majority of men. It allows them to live a similar length of life and avoid death from prostate cancer and avoid the harms of treatment."

However, it's important to note that watchful waiting isn't necessarily right for everyone with prostate cancer -- it's important to talk to your doctor to understand the severity of your particular cancer, and whether it's necessary to receive treatment, the Mayo Clinic noted.

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