Cancer treatment has come a long way — today’s treatments are more effective and have fewer side effects. However, treatment can still be difficult to endure and have a huge negative impact on your life. Many instances of prostate cancer advance very slowly, meaning the cancer will not spread or grow large enough to impact your life before you die from another cause. Therefore accessing effective prostate cancer treatments quickly will significantly increase you’re chances of survival or extend your life dramatically.
Common treatment options by stage
Radiation therapy or radical prostatectomy
External beam radiation and brachytherapy, alone or combined
|Combinations of external beam radiation, hormone therapy, brachytherapy, and radical prostatectomy
Hormone therapy, sometimes with chemotherapy
Combinations of external beam radiation, brachytherapy, and hormone therapy
Bone metastases treatments
If you have a non-aggressive cancer and it has not spread, many doctors will suggest active surveillance. So long as the cancer does not grow or spread, people can live their lives without the negative impact of cancer treatment. If the cancer eventually grows or spreads, you can work with your treatment team to choose how to respond.
With active surveillance, your doctor will typically run tests every 6 months. Tests often include your PSA blood test and a digital rectal exam. Doctors may perform annual biopsies. Even if you ultimately do undergo treatment, you can enjoy additional months or years of life without worrying about side effects. Men who undergo watchful waiting have the same life expectancy as those who pursue treatment immediately.
Some prostate cancer tumors are fed by testosterone, so by blocking it you can starve the tumors. This is through reducing hormone levels, also known as androgen deprivation therapy.
- Hormone therapy can be used before surgery or radiation to shrink the tumor
- Hormone therapy is used when the cancer has spread
- Hormone therapy and radiation may be used together to reduce the risk of cancer coming back
- Adjuvant hormone therapy reduces the chances of high-risk prostate cancer from coming back after a curative treatment
Hormone inhibitors may be pills, injections, or small implants under the skin. Lupron is one of the most common hormone therapy drugs. These keep the body from making hormone. Needles can be anxiety inducing, but the side effects are generally mild. Some people do have side effects that are serious enough that treatment will be stopped.
Hormone therapy tends to decrease in effectiveness after 2-3 years. In order to account for this, some oncologists will have you start and stop therapy. This is called intermittent androgen deprivation.
With an orchiectomy the testicles are removed through a small cut in the scrotum. Most of the male hormones are made in the testicles. This is an outpatient procedure with low risks of complications. However, after surgery men typically have very little sexual desire and aren’t able to have erections. Many men will have hot flashes afterward, which usually go away quickly, but may persist.
Side effects vary widely based on the hormone treatment used and how your body responds to it. Common side effects include loss of sex drive, impotence, hot flashes, shrinking of the penis and testicles, breast tenderness and growth, thinning bones (osteoporosis), weight gain, loss of muscle mass, and an increased risk of circulation problems.
The American Cancer Society has information on what treatment options are still available if your cancer does not respond to hormone therapy.
Radiation, or radiotherapy, uses high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells. This type of prostate cancer treatment can be used to shrink tumors, relieve symptoms, and reduce the spread of cancer.
People respond to radiation very differently. Some people find themselves overwhelmed with exhaustion and requiring significant help from family and friends. Other people continue to work through treatment. The fatigue subsides a month or two after treatment ends.
Radiation damages the cancer cells, but it also damages healthy cells nearby. The main short-term side effects of radiation include reddening of the skin, diarrhea, and difficulty urinating. It’s not uncommon to see blood in your urine or stool. Some patients develop radiation cystitis. These side effects will usually go away shortly after treatment ends. Some people continue to experience problems with stool leakage even after treatment ends.
Radiation can cause bowel complications. It can also cause erectile dysfunction, although problems tend to develop in the future, rather than immediately, as with surgery to remove the prostate. Radiation can damage the nerves around the prostate, as well as the arteries that carry blood to the penis.
While undergoing treatment for radiation, your oncologist may advise you to not allow children to sit on your lap.
External Beam Radiation
EBR is typically a daily outpatient treatment. If you live near a cancer center, it could mean stopping by for 15 minutes a day. Treatment length can vary, but it’s typically around 7 to 9 weeks. In some cases, patients may need to undergo radiation as an inpatient procedure.
Imaging tests will be done to see where the cancer is, so the beams can be directed there. Radiation techs may mark the spot with ink or in another way. Two types of advanced radiation are 3D-conformal therapy (3D-CRT) and modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). These reduce the damage to nearby tissues. Some oncologists will use proton beam radiation, also called proton therapy, which uses proton beams instead of x-rays. This is thought to reduce damage to nearby tissues, although the evidence is currently inconclusive.
With high dose radiation (HDR), also known as brachytherapy or internal radiation therapy, radioactive material is inserted into your prostate to kill the cancer. Your surgeon will use a transrectal ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI to place the material in the right spot.
With short-term brachytherapy, tubes are inserted into the skin of the perineum and into the prostate. Your doctor will insert radioactive materials into the tubes, usually 3 times a day for 2 days. The treatment takes about 10 minutes each time.
With permanent brachytherapy, also known as seed implants, radioactive pellets are surgically inserted directly into the prostate. Up to 100 seeds, each the size of a grain of rice, are put into the tumor. They’ll give off radiation for weeks or months and over time will stop being radioactive. They typically don’t cause discomfort because the seeds are so small.
While you’re undergoing brachytherapy, you may need to stay away from small children, pregnant women, and pets. Some people experience burning, pain, or diarrhea, but these are relatively rare.
They can also use gel to physically move the prostate away from the other nearby organs, reducing damage to those organs.
This treatment option for prostate cancer reduces the likelihood of impotence from alternate treatments, like the prostatectomy. Recovery is easier, compared to having your prostate removed.
High-intensity focused ultrasound
HIFU is relatively new to the US. It kills cancer cells with ultrasonic beams.
Chemotherapy is used to shrink tumors. It may be used on its own or it may be used to shrink tumors so they’re easier to remove with surgery. If the tumor can’t be removed, chemo can slow tumor growth and reduce symptoms, increasing your quality of life and lifespan.
Chemo may come as a pill or through an IV, or a needle in your vein. Since chemo goes through your bloodstream, it can damage cells throughout your body. Your oncologist will try to make the chemo strong enough to kill cancer cells without destroying too many healthy cells. Popular chemotherapies for prostate cancer include docetaxel (Taxotere) and cabazitaxel (Jevtana).
Prostate cancer patients may feel that chemo side effects aren’t as bad as they expect. There are many types of chemo, varying doses, and different frequencies, all with their own side effects. Common side effects include nausea, vomiting, hair loss, mouth sores, taste changes, and exhaustion.
Prostate Cancer Vaccine
Sipuleucel-T, or Provenge, is an FDA approved vaccine used to treat advanced prostate cancer that isn’t responding to hormone therapy. The prostate cancer vaccine is not mass-produced, so it’s made for each person who gets it.
Side effects typically only last a day or two, including fever, chills, fatigue, back pain, joint pain, nausea, and headache. Some men will experience problems breathing and high blood pressure.
Prostate cancer surgery has a high success rate, although the potential for side effects is high. The potential for incontinence and erectile dysfunction can cause major quality of life concerns and have a major impact on the self-esteem of prostate cancer survivors.
Regaining bladder control can take 6 months or more. You will have to exercise your bladder muscles to hold your urine, but you may experience leakage when your bladder is very full or when coughing or sneezing. Some men never fully regain control of their bladder. This can be managed through medication.
About 40% of men will not be able to achieve an erection, maintain an erection, or have a strong enough erection for sexual activity. You can start trying to have erections about 6 weeks after surgery. This is called penile rehabilitation. Loss of the ability to have an erection may not be permanent, as it may come back after as long as two years. Generally, the younger and healthier you are, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to maintain erections after prostate surgery.
Ejaculation becomes impossible after surgery, but this doesn’t mean you can’t have an orgasm. In fact, you can orgasm without having an erection. There are a variety of medications and devices that can help you resume an active sex life after prostate surgery, with or without erections.
Some factors make certain people more likely to need radiation in addition to surgery or even after surgery.
Like any surgery, the use of anesthesia and pain medication carries risk. All surgeries carry the risk of infection.
When surgeons talk about ‘radical’ surgery, they’re talking about ‘the root’ — meaning that a radical surgery removes the entire tumor and some of the tissue around it.
With retropubic surgery, an incision will be made in your lower belly. During retropubic surgery, your doctor will remove lymph nodes near the prostate to check them for cancer. Sometimes doctors will check the lymph nodes for cancer right then, called a frozen section exam. If they do contain cancer, your doctor may not remove the prostate and will instead talk to you about other treatment options. Usually the lymph nodes are simply removed and sent to a lab to be examined later.
If the bundle of nerves on either side of the prostate, which are needed for erections, have not been impacted by the cancer, your surgeon will leave them. This is what they mean when they talk about ‘nerve sparing’ surgery. Nerve sparing surgery does not guarantee that you’ll be able to have and maintain an erection after surgery, but it does improve your chances.
With perineal surgery, your doctor will make an incision between your scrotum and your anus, known as the perineum. This type of surgery is more likely to damage your nerves, but it is often a shorter operation.
With laparoscopic surgery, your surgery will be done through several small cuts, usually 4 small incisions in the abdomen. A camera and special instruments will be used to remove your prostate. The da Vinci system and SMART surgery are two types of robotic-assisted laparoscopic prostate removal.
After a radical prostatectomy, you’ll usually have a catheter for about a month. You’ll also experience pain after surgery, but your treatment team should be ready with a pain management plan to keep you comfortable during recovery.
You may be given postoperative radiotherapy (XRT). XRT increases survival rates in high-risk prostate cancer patients. Internal soreness from XRT can last months, either from the radiation itself or scar tissue forming from surgery. People with XRT are also more prone to UTIs, so it’s important to stay hydrated.
With cryosurgery, also called cryoblation, your tumor is killed by freezing it. Long, thin needles are inserted into your perineum and into the tumor. They’re then filled with very cold gasses, freezing the tumor. The surgeon will use a transrectal ultrasound (TRUS) to guide the needles into position. Men who undergo cryosurgery are more likely to experience erectile dysfunction.
Transurethral Resection of the Prostate
Transurethral Resection of the Prostate (TURP) does not treat the cancer, but it does make it easier to live with prostate cancer. Some tumors grow to block the urethra, making it difficult or impossible to urinate. This surgery removes the blockage. This is a good option for men who aren’t able to have a radical prostatectomy and are having difficulty urinating.
Which Prostate Cancer Treatment is Best for You?
Your oncologist will help guide you through the best options for your personal situation. Be sure to ask them about any complementary therapies or lifestyle changes which can increase your likelihood of beating the cancer. If you would like to learn more about using nutrition to keep your body in it’s best possible shape throughout your cancer treatment, book an appointment with one of our certified oncology dietitians.