Hollings’ advanced treatment and team science offer prostate cancer patients hope

September 24, 2021
Dr. David Marshall talks with Larry Ferguson in an exam room wearing masks
Dr. David Marshall successfully treated Larry Ferguson at Hollings after a blood test revealed that he had prostate cancer. Photo by Josh Birch

Most prostate cancer patients want one thing — options. That’s what MUSC Hollings Cancer Center offers to patients like Larry Ferguson, a dentist in Charleston and prostate cancer survivor.

“My experience opened my eyes to just how important Hollings is to Charleston and South Carolina as a whole,” Ferguson said. “When my primary care doctor told me I needed to see a urologist after a higher than normal prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test reading, I told him to send me to MUSC. I knew where I wanted to get my treatment.”

In May 2021, Ferguson underwent 20 rounds of radiation for his cancer and is now living life without prostate cancer. “Ultimately, I want men to learn from my experience and get evaluated and screened themselves,” he said. “After that, I want to collaborate with others as we walk this journey together.”

Larry Ferguson stands outside his dental practice 
Ferguson, a dentist in Charleston, now shares his story to encourage other men to get screened for prostate cancer. Photo by Marquel Coaxum

One way he plans on collaborating with others is through Hollings’ SC AMEN Program, which aims to educate African American men about prostate cancer and encourage them to get screenings. Ferguson served as a keynote speaker for the inaugural SC AMEN Program session held on Sept. 11.

While screenings are critical, proper follow-up care and treatment are equally as important. That’s where specialists like David Marshall, M.D., Hollings radiation oncologist and chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology, come in. Marshall was Ferguson’s radiation oncologist and said Hollings’ robust cancer care team offers patients world-class care in South Carolina.

“We can give our patients care as good as they could get anywhere in the world,” Marshall said. “Hollings has some of the most experienced physicians and surgeons in the world.”

As South Carolina’s only NCI-designated cancer center, Hollings relies on team science to provide the best care possible to patients. Along with offering patients promising new treatments through clinical trials, Hollings also has a Prostate Transdisciplinary Cancer Team that brings expertise from basic and clinical research to advance prostate cancer understanding and improve care.

Hollings prostate cancer specialists, including urologists, pathologists, radiation oncologists and radiologists, meet as a tumor board on a regular basis to discuss individual patient cases to determine the best options for that patient. “We don’t just give patients one option. By having specialists in every facet of prostate cancer, we can collect advice from multiple perspectives and present options to the patient, who can then pick the best option for themselves.”

For some patients with less aggressive and less invasive prostate cancer, like Ferguson had early on, the best course of treatment may be active surveillance utilizing state-of-the-art biopsy and MRI services offered at Hollings. Other patients with more aggressive forms of prostate cancer can benefit from new and improved methods of radiation, including custom-built links of radioactive seeds developed at Hollings.

“These custom-built links are part of a radiation method called brachytherapy,” Marshall said. “Rather than delivering radiation from the outside, we can actually plant radiation inside the patient that specifically targets their tumor and kills cancer cells.”

“Prostate cancer is highly curable when it is detected at early stages. It is a classic example of early detection saves lives.”
— Dr. David Marshall

Hollings also offers patients external beam radiation and surgical options to remove the prostate, if necessary, called radical prostatectomy. “Ultimately, if we take care of the prostate cancer, a patient isn’t likely to die from it — ever,” Marshall said. “That’s usually how I start off my conversation with patients when they come see me.”

Marshall advocates for early and routine screenings, especially for men with a family history of prostate cancer. “Prostate cancer is highly curable when it is detected at early stages,” Marshall said. “It is a classic example of early detection saves lives.”

The current recommendation to begin prostate cancer screenings for Black men at average risk is 40 to 45 years old, and for white men, it’s 50 to 55 years old. The most common and effective way to screen for prostate cancer is through a PSA blood test, which Marshall said catches 99% of prostate cancers.

“The PSA blood test essentially looks for a protein in the blood that is only made by the prostate. If that PSA number is higher than the average number should be, based on a patient’s age, then further evaluation will be needed.”

Marshall describes prostate cancer as a silent killer that often doesn’t present with symptoms until it is in an advanced state. On average, 200,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer and each year in the U.S. 30,000 men will die from it.

“Our goal is to catch the 15% of men who present with prostate cancer at high risk and stages that require immediate treatment in order to reduce the number of people dying from the disease,” Marshall said. “In the end, it is all about excellent patient care and saving lives. That’s what we strive for at Hollings, and that won’t ever change.”