Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions About Prostate Cancer

Below is a list of common questions men have about the diagnosis, treatment and side-effects related to prostate cancer. We strive to educate visitors and prospective patients alike in an effort to help them understand the conditions of this disease and what is being done to treat it. If you have been diagnosed with prostate cancer, you will find this information particularly useful as a guide and resource to help you make the best decision moving forward in your treatment!

What is Prostate Cancer?

What is the prostate gland and what does it do?

What are the risk factors for prostate cancer and who is at risk?

Where does prostate cancer spread?

What is prostate cancer screening?

Will my insurance company cover prostate cancer screening and treatment?

Who decides that prostate cancer is present?

How does one know if the prostate cancer is confined to the prostate?

How and why does someone stage prostate cancer?

How do I decide which treatment is best option for me?

How do I select a specialist?

What is a radical prostatectomy? What are the risks and complications of this procedure?

What is brachytherapy / internal seed therapy? What are the side effects and complications of interstitial seeds/brachytherapy?

What is external-beam radiation therapy and conformal external-beam radiation therapy? What are the side effects of EBRT?

What is cryotherapy/cryosurgery? What are the complications of this procedure?

What is hormone therapy? Do I have to have an orchiectomy?

What is hormone-refactory prostate cancer and how do you treat it?

Is chemotherapy used for prostate cancer?

How can I expect to feel after chemotherapy?

Do other treatment options exist for my cancer besides chemotherapy?

What is active surveillance or watchful waiting?

When can I consider myself cured of prostate cancer?

What happens if the PSA is rising after my radiation therapy or radical prostatectomy?

What happens if I develop bone pain?

What is impotence, and what happens if I become impotent after treatment for my prostate cancer?

I am incontinent after therapy for my prostate cancer. What can I do?

I don’t have a job or insurance; how can I get my prostate checked?

How will treatment of my prostate cancer affect my sexuality?

I’ve found out that I have prostate cancer and I am depressed. Is this common?

Will I be able to do the things I used to do now that I have prostate cancer (travel, golf, etc)?

What is radiosurgery / radiation therapy? Is it true that it may be faster and cheaper than all alternative therapies?

Can I work during radiation therapy?

Will I be incontinent after radiation therapy?

 

What is Prostate Cancer?

Prostate cancer is the process in which cells begin to grow abnormally and crowd out healthy cells. As the abnormal cells multiply, they form a malignant (cancerous) growth or tumor. Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men after skin cancer. More than 230,000 men in the U.S. will be diagnosed with prostate cancer every year. However, 30,000 men die of the disease every year.

Thanks to better screening methods and greater awareness, prostate cancer is being detected much earlier. That is giving men more options for treatment and leading to better survival rates and an improved quality of life. The American Cancer Society estimates that some 2 million men who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer are leading active lives today.

Not all growths in the prostate are cancerous; some can be benign or non-cancerous. A non-cancerous growth is called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) disease. BPH is a very common condition in men over age 50. It requires treatment, but it is not malignant.

What is the prostate gland and what does it do?

The prostate is a small walnut-size gland in men that is part of the reproductive system. It helps produce seminal fluid, the fluid that carries semen out of the body during ejaculation. The nerves that control erections found alongside and immediately adjacent to the prostate. These are the nerves that are preserved during surgery to enable a man to continue to have erections.

The prostate is located in front of the rectum which is why it can be felt during a physical exam at the doctor’s office. It is also positioned under the bladder, where it surrounds the upper part of the urethra. The urethra is the long tube through which urine and semen flow out of the penis. If the prostate becomes enlarged or inflamed, it can put pressure on the urethra and interfere with normal urine flow.

What are the risk factors for prostate cancer and who is at risk?

Risk factors are circumstances or actions that increase a man’s potential for developing cancer. Some risk factors are modifiable, such as smoking, diet and exercise. Others, including age, race and family history are beyond individual control. It is important to remember that even if a man has one or more risk factors, it does not mean he will develop prostate cancer. However, each man should talk with his physician about whether he would benefit from earlier and more frequent screening.

The risk factors for prostate cancer include:

  • Age: The incidence of prostate cancer increases for men age 65 and over. Prostate cancer is rare in men younger than age 40, but can affect one in six men between ages 60 and 79.
  • Race: Men of African-American heritage are at higher risk for prostate cancer than Caucasian, Hispanic or Asian men. African-American men are also more frequently diagnosed with advanced stage disease and they have lower survival rates.
  • Family History: The risk of prostate cancer increases sharply when a first-degree relative (a father, brother or uncle) has been diagnosed with the disease, especially at a young age. The risk increases further with more relatives diagnosed with prostate cancer.
  • Lifestyle Factors: Some research has shown a link between a high-fat diet and prostate cancer.

Where does prostate cancer spread?

As prostate cancer grows, it grows through the prostate, the prostate capsule and the fat that surrounds the prostate capsule. Because the prostate gland lies below the bladder and attaches to it, the prostate cancer can also grow up into the base of the bladder. Prostate cancer can also grow into the seminal vesicles which are located adjacent to the prostate. It may continue to grow locally in the pelvis into muscles within or on the sidewall of the pelvis.

The spread of cancer to other sites is called metastasis. When prostate cancer spreads outside of the capsule and the fatty tissue, it usually goes to two main areas in the body: the lymph nodes that drain the prostate and the bones. The more commonly involved lymph nodes are those in the pelvis, and bones that are more commonly affected are the spine and ribs. Less commonly, prostate cancer can spread to solid organs in the body, such as the liver.

What is prostate cancer screening?

The goal of prostate screening is to detect prostate cancer as early as possible, ideally at a manageable and even curable stage. Prostate cancer screening is composed of both a digital rectal examination and a serum PSA. Both of these are important in the screening process, and an abnormality in either of these warrants further evaluation. Roughly 20% of prostate cancers are found by rectal examination; most are detected by an abnormal PSA.

Prostate cancer screening should be performed on a yearly basis, except for men with an initially low PSA level who may want to consider screening on an every-other-year basis. As you continue with screening on a yearly basis, changes in the PSA (beyond what is believed to be a change caused by benign growth of the prostate) or rectal examination will prompt further evaluation. It is hoped that through the use of prostate cancer screening, the morbidity and mortality associated with prostate cancer will be diminished. More recent studies are showing increased survival as a result of prostate cancer screening.

Will my insurance company cover prostate cancer screening and treatment?

At this point, Medicare covers annual digital rectal examination and PSA for qualified Medicare patients aged 50 and older. Most health insurance providers are also providing similar coverage. The costs of the various treatments for prostate cancer vary from institution to institution. Most HMOs cover treatment of prostate cancer if the treatment is performed by an HMO-affiliated physician.

If you received care outside of the HMO system, then you may be responsible for the cost of your treatment. If you have questions regarding insurance coverage, it is always best to check with your insurance company before you start screening and treatment to make sure that you are fully aware of your coverage and its possible limitations.

 Who decides that prostate cancer is present?

After your prostate biopsies have been obtained, they are sent to the pathologist, a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis of disease by studying cells and tissues under the microscope. The pathologist looks at the cells in the prostate biopsy specimens to see if they appear normal or not.

The pathologist may identify normal-appearing prostate cells, prostatitis, benign prostatic enlargement, or cancerous cells. If cancerous cells are present, then the pathologist will look closely at the cells and assign a Gleason grade and score. The Gleason grading system helps describe the appearance of the cancerous cells and may affect your prognosis. In addition to the Gleason grade and score, the pathologist will also comment on how much of each biopsy specimen had prostate cancer cells in it; this, too, may affect your prognosis.

How does one know if the prostate cancer is confined to the prostate?

By staging your cancer, your doctor is trying to assess, based on your prostate biopsy results, your physical examination, your PSA, and other tests and x-rays, whether your prostate cancer is confined to the prostate, and if it is not, to what extent it has spread.

Studies of large numbers of men who have undergone radical prostatectomy and pelvic lymph node dissections have established some guidelines regarding the likelihood of prostate capsular involvement and lymph node metastases. Patients may be asked to obtain a prostate MRI to evaluate the surrounding tissue depending on the grade and stage of the cancer.

How and why does someone stage prostate cancer?

Knowing the stage (the size and the extent of spread) of the prostate cancer helps the doctor counsel you on treatment options.

USMD Prostate Cancer Center follows the American Urological Association “T” staging system for prostate cancer:

  • T1 – the tumor is visible or can be seen with imaging.
  • T1a – the cancer was found during treatment for benign prostate enlargement but is present in less than five percent of the tissue and has a low-grade Gleason score.
  • T1b – the cancer was found during treatment for benign prostate enlargement but is present in more than five percent of the tissue and has a higher grade Gleason score.
  • T1c – the cancer was diagnosed from a biopsy due to an elevated PSA lab test.
  • T2 – the tumor can be felt during a digital rectal exam but appears to be confined to the prostate.
  • T2a – the cancer is found in one half or less of the left or right side only of the prostate.
  • T2b – the cancer is found on both sides of the prostate.
  • T3 – the cancer has begun to spread outside the prostate and may include the seminal vesicles.
  • T3a – the cancer has spread outside the prostate but not to the seminal vesicles.
  • T3b – the cancer has spread to the seminal vesicles.
  • T4 – the cancer has spread to nearby organs.

How do I decide which treatment is best option for me?

The decision to undergo treatment of any kind rests in the hands of the patient, and it is our job as physicians to provide you with the information that will allow you to make that decision. When forced to make a difficult decision, we often rely on loved ones, close friends and knowledgeable individuals to help us, but these people do not have to live with the effects of that decision. As you weigh the pros and cons of each of the various treatment options, it is very important that you think of how they will affect you. Now is the time to be very honest with yourself about what side effects you can and cannot tolerate.

It is your physician’s responsibility to accurately inform you of the likelihood of side effects of each of the treatment options and the remedies that are available to treat those side effects. When faced with a diagnosis of prostate cancer, the first impulse may be to get rid of the cancer at any cost. Unfortunately, once the prostate cancer has been treated and the worry quiets down, the side effects of the treatment can become more bothersome– so you should think seriously about them beforehand. Many patients can be managed conservatively with lower grade prostate cancer, but there are some inherent risks with surveillance as well as treatment. Make sure that your physician covers all of these treatment modalities with you. Guidelines do exist to help patients reach a decision and one such example is the NCCN Guidelines – attach guidelines within the cancer center site here.

How do I select a specialist?

If your primary care provider is performing your prostate cancer screening and detects an abnormality in your PSA and/or rectal examination, he or she may refer you to a urologist or to a urology practice for further evaluation. When choosing a urologist for your prostate biopsies, you should consider a urologist who deals with prostate cancer on a regular basis. Several issues should be considered with you select a physician:

  • You want a capable doctor who is knowledgeable and can apply that knowledge.
  • Technical skills. If you are planning to have prostate cancer surgery, you want to select an individual who performs a lot of radical prostatectomies. The urologist should know his or her own complication rate (a complication is an undesirable result of a treatment) and success rate and should feel comfortable discussing these with you. The old dictum “practice makes perfect” holds true to some extent.
  • Cancer is a scary word and disease no matter how you look at it. You want a physician who understands this and is willing to take the time to help you make your management decision so that you will feel comfortable with your decision.
  • As you go through the decision-making process, you want to be able to ask questions of your physician and have these questions answered in a timely manner. Delays in diagnosis and treatment only add to your anxiety.

These same concepts apply in your choice of an oncologist or radiation oncologist. Friends who have prostate cancer may also be able to assist you with the identification of a urologist, oncologist or radiation oncologist who specializes in the treatment of prostate cancer.

What is a radical prostatectomy? What are the risks and complications of this procedure?

Radical prostatectomy is the surgical procedure whereby the entire prostate is removed, as well as the seminal vesicles, the section of the urethra that passes through the prostate, the ends of the vas deferens, and a portion of the bladder neck. Currently, over 85% of all radical prostatectomy surgeries in the United States are performed as robotic prosatectomies. After the prostate and surrounding structures are removed, the bladder is then reattached to the remaining urethra. A catheter, which is a hollow tube, is placed through the penis into the bladder before the stitches that attach the bladder to the urethra are tied down. The catheter allows urine to drain while the bladder and urethra heal together.

A laparoscopic radical prostatectomy is a relatively new procedure that has the advantages of a retropubic approach, but because there are several small abdominal incisions as opposed to the longer midline incision, the discomfort is less and the recovery is quicker with this approach.

What is brachytherapy / internal seed therapy? What are the side effects and complications of interstitial seeds/brachytherapy?

Brachytherapy is a technique in which either permanent radioactive seeds or temporary needles are placed directly into the prostate gland. This form of therapy started in the early 1900s and then had a resurgence in the 1970s but was abandoned because of difficulties with accurate seed placement. With the development of transrectal ultrasound, the use of C-arm fluoroscopy, and more recently, the use of three-dimensional computerized treatment planning and postoperative CT-based dosimetry, the procedure has become technically easier and more precise. As a result, it is gaining in popularity.

Two radioactive agents can be used for permanent seed placement, palladium 103 and iodine 125, and both are effective in the treatment of prostate cancer. A third agent, iridium 192, is used for temporary placement and is removed after 24 to 72 hours. Palladium gives a higher initial dose of radiation when it is placed, and some people think that it may be more helpful in high-grade, fast growing tumors.

Similar to radical prostatectomy, the goal of interstitial therapy is to cure one of prostate cancer. With this in mind, the candidate should have a life expectancy of more than 7 to 10 years and no underlying illness that would contraindicate the procedure such that he will not benefit from a cure. Men with significant obstructive voiding symptoms and/or prostate volumes greater than 60 mL are at increased risk for voiding troubles and urinary retention after the procedure. Men who have undergone a prior TURP are at increased risk for urinary incontinence after brachytherapy. Fewer men are choosing brachytherapy over the last 10 years because of the improved technology with Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy and the Robotic Prostatectomy.

What is external-beam radiation therapy and conformal external-beam radiation therapy? What are the side effects of EBRT?

External-beam radiation therapy (EBRT) is the use of radiation therapy to kill or inactivate cancer cells. The total radiation dose is given in separate individual treatments, known as “fractionation.” Cancer cells are most sensitive to radiation at different phases in their growth. By giving the radiation on a daily basis, the radiation oncologist hopes to catch the cancer cells in the sensitive phases of growth and also to prevent the cells from having time to recover from the radiation damage. Conformal EBRT uses CT images to help better visualize the radiation targets and the normal tissues; with three-dimensional images, the radiation oncologist can identify critical structures, such as the bladder, the rectum and the hip bones. This allows the radiation oncologist to deliver more radiation to the prostate tissue but decrease the amount of normal tissue that is irradiated.

The advantage of conformal EBRT over EBRT is that conformal EBRT causes less rectal and urinary irritation. The construction of an immobilization device and the placement of the small, permanent tattoos ensure that you are properly positioned for the radiation treatment each day. Through the assistance of computers, the radiation to the prostate and surrounding tissues and the computer determine the appropriate beam configuration to create this desired distribution.

The side effects of EBRT or conformal EBRT can be either acute (occurring within 90 days after EBRT) or late (occurring over 90 days after EBRT). The severity of the side effects varies with the total and the daily radiation dose, the type of treatment, the site of treatment, and the individual’s tolerance. The most commonly noted side effects include changes in bowel habits, bowel bleeding, skin irritation, edema, fatigue, and urinary symptoms, including dysuria, frequency, hesitancy, and nocturia. Less commonly, swelling of the legs, scrotum or penis may occur. Late side effects include persistence of bowel dysfunction, persistence of urinary symptoms, urinary bleeding, urethral stricture and erectile dysfunction.

What is cryotherapy/cryosurgery? What are the complications of this procedure?

Cryosurgery is a technique used for prostate cancer treatment that involves controlled freezing of the prostate gland. This procedure is performed under anesthesia. Transrectal ultrasound evaluation (similar to that used with your prostate biopsy) is used throughout the procedure to visualize the prostate and to monitor the position of the freezing probes, which are placed through the perineal skin (the area below the scrotum and in front of the anus)_ into the prostate. During the freezing, the transrectal ultrasound demonstrates an “ice ball” in the prostate. The freezing process kills both hormone-sensitive and hormone-insensitive cancer cells. Proper positioning of the probe may allow one to kill cancer cells even at the edge of the prostate, the prostate capsule.

During the freezing, a catheter is placed into the urethra, and a warming solution is run through the catheter to protect the urethra from freezing. Despite this, irritation of the urethra and/or bladder can occur and may lead to frequency, urgency, burning, pain with urination, and blood in the urine. Similarly, irritation of the rectal wall may occur, leading to blood in the stools, rectal pain, and pain with bowel movements. Up to 80% of men undergoing cryosurgery can have troubles with erectile dysfunction, and an increased incidence occurs in men in whom attempts were made to include the prostate capsule in the freezing. Less commonly seen side effects include urethral scar formation, trouble urinating that requires a TURP and urinary incontinence. A serious complication of cryosurgery is a urethrorectal fistula, a communication between the urethra and the rectum, which can lead to leakage of urine from the rectum and urinary tract infections. With 3rd generation cryoablation technology, the risk of fistula formation has become exceedingly rare.

Currently, cryosurgery is being used as primary therapy and for salvage therapy (a procedure intended to “rescue” a patient after a failed prior therapy) for men who fail to respond to EBRT or intersitial seeds. Ideal candidates are men with a Gleason score < 8 and a PSA <10 with cancer localized to the prostate.

 What is hormone therapy? Do I have to have an orchiectomy?

Hormone therapy is a form of prostate cancer treatment designed to eliminate the male hormones from the body. Hormones are substances that are responsible for secondary sex characteristics such as hair growth and voice changes in males. Androgens are necessary for the development and function of the male sexual organs and male sexual characteristics. The most common androgen is testosterone. Androgens are primarily produced by the testicles, under control of various parts of the brain. A small amount of androgens is produced by the adrenal glands, which are small glands located above the kidneys and which produce many important chemicals.

Prostate cancer cells may be hormone sensitive, hormone insensitive, or hormone resistant. Cancer cells that are hormone sensitive require androgens for growth. Thus, elimination of the androgens would prevent the growth of such cells and cause them to shrink. Normal prostate cells are also hormone sensitive and also shrink in response to hormone therapy. Prostate cancer cells that are hormone resistant continue to grow despite hormone therapy.

Hormone therapy is not a “curative” therapy, because it does not eliminate the prostate cancer cells; rather, it is “palliative” in that its goal is to slow down the progression, or growth, of the prostate cancer. Hormone therapy for patients with metastatic disease may work effectively for several years; however, over time, the hormone-resistant cells will emerge, and the cancer will grow.

Hormone therapy may be used as a primary, secondary or neoadjuvant therapy. Hormone therapy is often used as a primary therapy in older men who are not candidates for surgery or radiation therapy and who are not interested in watchful waiting. It is also used in men who have metastatic disease at the time that their prostate cancer is detected. Men who experience a rise in their PSA after radical prostatectomy, radiation therapy or cryosurgery are given hormone therapy to slow down the growth of the recurrent prostate cancer. Lastly, hormone therapy may be given for a period of time before radical prostatectomy, radiation therapy or cryotherapy to shrink the prostate gland and make the procedure easier to perform. It is unclear whether this type of therapy affects the time to disease progression or survival on the pathology, such that it is very difficult for the pathologist to grade the cancer cells after three months of hormone therapy.

In men with recurrent prostate cancer after EBRT or radical prostatectomy or in those who do not have organ-confined prostate cancer at the time of diagnosis, the time at which hormone therapy should be started is not clear. For this reason, one must weigh the potential benefits and side effects of hormone therapy. Hormone therapy may delay disease progression, but its effect on survival does not appear to be significant.

In one study in men with prostate cancer, delaying hormone therapy for one year was associated with an 18% increase risk of death due to prostate cancer; although this was a large study, it is still only one study and more information is needed.

Many different forms of hormone therapy exist, and they may be subdivided into two groups: surgical and medical therapies. The surgical approach is a bilateral orchiectomy (removal of both testicles), whereby the main source of androgen production, the testicles, are removed.

Bilateral orchiectomy is performed in men with prostate cancer to remove most of the male hormone production. Typically, this procedure can be performed as a minor surgical procedure under local anesthesia. Depending on the urologist’s preference, it can be performed through a single incision in the middle of the scrotum or through two incisions, one on each side of the scrotum. The blood vessels that supply the testis and the sperm duct are tied off, and the testes are removed.

The advantages of bilateral orchiectomy are that it causes a quick drop in the testosterone level, it is a one-time procedure, and it is more cost effective than the shots, which require several office visits per year and are more expensive. The disadvantages are those of any surgical procedure and include bleeding, infection, permanence, and scrotal changes. In men who have undergone bilateral orchiectomy and are bothered by an “empty” scrotum, bilateral testicular prostheses may be placed that are the same size as the adult testes. Most men who undergo bilateral orchiectomy lose their libido and have erectile dysfunction after the testosterone level has lowered. Other long-term side effects of bilateral orchiectomy, related to testosterone depletion, include hot flashes, osteoporosis, fatigue, loss of muscle mass, anemia, and weight gain.

What is hormone-refractory prostate cancer and how do you treat it?

In patients with metastatic disease at the time of diagnosis, in those who are too ill for a curative therapy, or in those who develop recurrent prostate cancer after surgery or radiation therapy, hormone therapy is often used. First-line hormone therapy is usually orchiectomy or an LHRH analogue. For men in whom the prostate cancer continues to grow while they are receiving first-line hormone therapy, an antiandrogen is added.

Increases in PSA while you are receiving total androgen blockade indicate the presence of hormone-insensitive prostate cancer cells. If this occurs, the antiandrogen is withdrawn, and the LHRH analogue is continued. When the PSA continues to increase despite this change, another form of hormone therapy, such as a different antiandrogen, aminoglutethimide, ketoconazole, or a steroid, is used. When the PSA continues to increase despite all forms of hormone therapy, your condition is called “hormone refactory,” which means that it is resistant to hormone treatment. In this situation, the option is chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or a clinical trial that evaluates newer medication or newer doses or combinations of therapies.

Is chemotherapy used for prostate cancer?

Chemotherapy is the use of powerful drugs either to kill cancer cells or interfere with their growth. Many different types of chemotherapeutic agents work at different times in the growth cycle of the cell, and combinations of agents often are used to maximize the effects on the cancer cells. To date, there is no curative chemotherapy for prostate cancer, but several different drugs have been shown to improve symptoms and decrease the PSA level or the amount of cancer, but no drug has been shown to kill all of the prostate cancer cells present. Ongoing clinical trials continue to look at new chemotherapy drugs, combinations of drugs, or different doses in hopes of finding more effective and less toxic options.

How can I expect to feel after chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy tolerance is different from person to person. However, the newer generation of chemotherapy drugs tends to be better tolerated than the older ones. The availability of more effective anti-nausea medications also helps to decrease potential treatment-related side effects. Despite this, most people will feel tired after each treatment. The specific side effects of each treatment regimen will be discussed with you on a one-on-one basis prior to starting therapy.

Do other treatment options exist for my cancer besides chemotherapy?

Different types of cancer are treated with different drugs. In addition, different stages of the same cancer are often treated differently as well. Many types of treatments exist including chemotherapy, hormone therapy, immune therapy and targeted therapy. At times, radiation therapy will be used either alone or in combination with chemotherapy to help achieve the desired treatment response. All of these treatments are available at the USMD Cancer Center. Your oncologist and care team will formulate a treatment plan based on medical literature, your disease and your health status.

What is active surveillance or watchful waiting?

Watchful waiting is following prostate cancer conservatively with no plan for intervention in the future. This is ideally suited for men with a less than 10 year life expectancy with lower risk prostate cancer. This is in contrast to active surveillance which surveils the patient with prostate cancer closely with serial PSA readings, digital rectal exams and sequential prostate biopsies to ensure the patient continues to remain at low risk for progression. Rather than treating the cancer immediately, the physician monitors the PSA value at various intervals to assess whether it is increasing and at what rate (the PSA velocity). Ideally, the patient and the physician identify a point at which therapy would be instituted and the patient is monitored without therapy until he changes his mind or that point is reached.

Active surveillance is ideally suited for patients with low risk and lower grade (Gleason score <6) prostate cancer. In these individuals, it is less likely that prostate cancer will be the cause of their death. With more patients considering active surveillance as an approach for prostate cancer, it has become increasingly important to ensure these patients are not harboring a higher grade or higher volume of prostate cancer during this surveillance process.

When can I consider myself cured of prostate cancer?

Prostate cancer, like all cancers, does not “play by the rules.” It does not reach out to areas outside of the prostate in a straight line such that if no cancer is present at the edge of the prostate then no cancer exists at all outside of the prostate. Cancer cells may remain in the pelvis, get into the bloodstream, or be present in the bones and not grow quickly enough for them to be noticed for several years. In the strictest sense, a cancer is considered to be “cured” when there is no evidence of any cancer ten years after treatment. This seems like an awfully long time, and certainly you do not need to hold your breath and put your life on hold during this time: the PSA testing along the way will help assure you that all is going well. PSA testing is the most sensitive way of detecting a recurrence of the prostate cancer and detects it sooner than bone scans or other types of x-ray studies.

With radical prostatectomy, the PSA decreases to an undetectable level in most people because the producer of PSA, the prostate, has been removed. Rarely, small glands in the urethra may produce small amounts of PSA, with may account for a PSA level that is slightly above undetectable but does not increase over time. With radiation therapy (both interstitial seeds and IMRT) and cryotherapy, the prostate is not removed, and thus the PSA does not decrease to an undetectable range. The PSA will drop, however, reflecting the death of the cancer cells and the loss of PSA production. Biopsy of the prostate is not routinely used to confirm that treatment has been effective unless the PSA increases in 3 consecutive readings at least 6 months apart. This is also known as the ASTRO criteria for PSA failure.

What happens if the PSA is rising after my radiation therapy or radical prostatectomy?

When the PSA rises after definitive therapy, such as IMRT, interstitial seed therapy, and radical prostatectomy, it is called PSA progression. In the absence of any identifiable cancer, it is called biochemical progression, because the only indicator of progression of the cancer is the PSA level. When the PSA is increasing after definitive therapy, your physician may want to re-stage you to determine where the cancer is. It is helpful in the decision making to determine whether the prostate cancer is confined to the prostate, the area where the prostate was or the pelvis, or whether it has spread outside of the prostatic area (for example, to the bones or lymph nodes higher up in your abdomen). Methods used in this staging process may be a bone scan and/or a CT scan or, if recommended a biopsy of the prostate, surrounding areas or of other areas that may be likely to have cancer.

When the PSA rises after radical prostatectomy, the relevant question is whether there is local recurrence of the prostate cancer or distance disease. 

What happens if I develop bone pain?

When prostate cancer metastasizes, it tends to travel to the pelvic lymph nodes first and then to the bones. Bone metastases may be silent, meaning that they do not cause any pain, or they may be symptomatic, causing pain or leading to a fracture. Bone metastases are typically identified on bone scan and can also be seen on a plain x-ray.

There are many ways to treat bone pain. Your doctor will likely try the simplest treatments and those associated with the least side effects first, and then progress as needed. Nonsterodial anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen are typically used as a first-line treatment. If the pain is not controlled with these, then narcotics such as Tylenol with codeine are needed. For patients with a localized bone metastasis that is causing persistent discomfort, localized IMRT may be used. IMRT provides pain relief in 80% to 90% of patients, and the relief may last for up to one year in slightly more than half of these men. Usually, the total radiation dose is given over 5 to 15 quick treatment sessions.

The side effects of localized IMRT vary with the area that is being irradiated. Treatment of metastases to the skull may cause hair loss and flaking and redness of the scalp. Treatment of cervical spine (neck bone) metastases may cause discomfort with swallowing and hoarseness. If the mid-spine is treated, nausea and vomiting may result. Treatment of pelvic bone metastases may cause diarrhea. Treatment side effects often resolve with time.

What is impotence, and what happens if I become impotent after treatment for my prostate cancer?

Impotence is the consistent inability to achieve adequate penile rigidity for penetration or adequate duration of rigidity for completion of sexual performance. Approximately 50% of men 40 to 70 years of age experience erectile dysfunction. To achieve an adequate erection, you must have properly functioning nerves, arteries and veins. When you are stimulated or aroused, your brain releases chemicals that tell the nerves in the pelvis to release chemicals that in turn tell the arteries in the penis to open and increase blood flow in to the penis. At the same time that blood is moving into the penis, the veins in the penis collapse so that the blood remains in the penis, making it rigid and allowing the rigidity to last. Anything that can affect the brain, nerves, arteries, or veins can cause trouble with erections. More common causes of erectile dysfunction include strokes, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s disease, high cholesterol levels, heart disease, poor circulation in the legs, high blood pressure and medications used to treat high blood pressure, depression and medications used to treat depression, diabetes, surgery (such as a radical prostatectomy and colorectal cancer surgeries), pelvic radiation and hormone therapy for prostate cancer.

When seeking treatment for prostate cancer, many men are very concerned about the effects the treatment have on erectile function. Basically, all of the treatment options carry a risk of erectile dysfunction; however, they differ in how soon after treatment the erectile dysfunction occurs and how likely it is to occur. If you are already having trouble with erections, none of the treatments for prostate cancer will improve your erections. The incidence of erectile dysfunction associated with radical prostatectomy varies with patient age, erectile function before surgery, nerve-sparing status, and the surgeon’s technical ability to perform a nerve-sparing radical prostatectomy. Erectile function continues to improve for up to 3.5 years after surgery although most men regain their potency within the first 12-18 months. During this time, men can improve their function further by utilizing phosphodiesterase inhibitors such as Cialis, Viagra and Levitra, utilizing a Vacuum Erection device to improve blood flow to the penis and injection therapy directly to the penis to obtain erections.

I am incontinent after therapy for my prostate cancer. What can I do?

Urinary incontinence, the uncontrolled loss of urine, is one of the most bothersome risks of prostate cancer treatment. Although it is more commonly associated with radical prostatectomy, it may also occur after any treatments for prostate cancer. Urinary incontinence may lead to anxiety, hopelessness and loss of self-control and self-esteem. Fear of leakage may limit social activities and participation in sex. If you are experiencing these feelings, you should discuss this with your doctor and spouse or significant other.

If you experience persistent urinary incontinence after surgery or radiation therapy, your doctor will want to identify the degree and the type of incontinence. You will be asked questions regarding the number of pads you use per day, what activities precipitate an incontinence, how frequently you urinate, if you have frequency or urgency, how strong your force of urine stream is, if you feel that you are emptying your bladder well, and what types and how much fluid you are drinking. The doctor may check to make sure that you are emptying your bladder well. This is usually done by having you urinate and then scanning your bladder with a small ultrasound probe to determine how much urine is left behind. Normally, less than one tablespoon remains after urination.

There are several different types of urinary incontinence and these different types may co-exist. The treatment of urinary incontinence varies with the type. The types that may be encountered in men being treated for prostate cancer include stress, overflow, and urge incontinence. Men who have undergone radical prostatectomy typically experience a type of stress incontinence called “intrinsic sphincter deficiency.” Stress incontinence may also occur after interstitial seed therapy and is much more common if a TURP of the prostate was performed in the past. In men, urinary control is primarily at the bladder outlet by the internal sphincter muscle. This muscle remains closed and opens only during urination.

An additional muscle, the external sphincter, is located further away from the bladder and is the “back-up” muscle. The external sphincter is the muscle that you contract when you feel the urge to urinate and there is no bathroom in sight. During a radical prostatectomy, the internal sphincter is often damaged with the removal of the prostate because it lies just at the top of the prostate. Continence then depends on the ability of the remaining urethra to close and on the external sphincter.

I don’t have a job or insurance; how can I get my prostate checked?

In the fall, Prostate Cancer Awareness Week typically includes free prostate cancer screening. This screening includes a digital rectal examination and a PSA level determination. The examining physician tells you whether he or she thinks your prostate feels suspicious and whether further evaluation by a urologist is recommended. You receive your PSA results by mail at a later time. If your PSA is elevated, you will be told that further evaluation is indicated, and you will be expected to make an appointment with a urologist for this. Often, this service is provided at your local hospital and may be advertised in the newspaper. If you have not seen advertisements in the past, you may want to call your local hospital to see if it is offered. If you are unable to obtain any information from your local hospital, you may want to try the offices of local urologists.

If you plan to return to the free prostate cancer screening on a yearly basis, keep in mind that the same person may not examine your prostate each year and the PSA results from year to year may not be compared. For this reason, it is important that you keep track of the results and compare them yourself. Ideally, the PSA should not change by more than .7 to .75 ng/mL per year, even if each of the values is within the normal range. If the change is greater than .7ng/mL per year, even if both numbers fall within the “normal range,” then you should seek further evaluation. Transrectal ultrasound-guided prostate biopsies are not part of the free prostate cancer screening.

How will treatment of my prostate cancer affect my sexuality?

All forms of treatment of prostate cancer, with the exception of watchful waiting, have the risk of causing erectile dysfunction. Hormone therapy affects libido (desire for sex) in addition to erection function. But erectile function is only one part of your overall sexual function, and other phases of your sexual response can occur without a rigid penis. Sexual arousal can occur with other forms of stimulation and does not require penile rigidity. Orgasm also occurs in the absence of penile rigidity. After a radical prostatectomy, you have a dry ejaculate (no fluid will come out of the penis).The ejaculate volume may also be affected to varying degrees by brachytherapy, cryotherapy and any type of radiation therapy such as IMRT or proton beam therapy. Many men undergo erectile rehabilitation after treatment for prostate cancer which includes stimulating the nerves responsible for the erections with phosphodiesterase inhibitors (Cialis, Levitra or Viagra). In addition, a vacuum erection device is also used to improve the blood flow to the penis to minimize scarring and improve earlier erections. Injection therapy is also used to obtain a more full erection and is often started in the first 3-6 months depending upon the patient’s erectile function.

I’ve found out that I have prostate cancer and I am depressed. Is this common?

The diagnosis of prostate cancer comes as a shock to most men. Often, they are feeling fine and experience no signs or symptoms to make them suspicious. When they are faced with such a shock, common reactions are fear, anger, confusion and depression. It is not unusual to initially “retreat” from life as you absorb the reality of the situation and begin to gather information and start the decision-making process.

If you find that you have feelings of failure, are continuing to withdraw socially, feel that you are being punished, are thinking about committing suicide, feel helpless and can’t make decisions, have lost interest in activities that brought you pleasure, or are crying a lot, then you may suffer from a more severe depression and you should discuss this with your doctor.

Sometimes, when faced with such potentially overwhelming situations, you may need some assistance to help you gain control of your life again and make the decisions you will need to make regarding your treatment.

Will I be able to do the things I used to do now that I have prostate cancer (travel, golf, etc)?

A lot of what you will be able to do will vary with the stage of your disease and the treatment that you are undergoing. With early-stage prostate cancer, there are usually few limitations; you can golf, travel, and so on. If you are planning to undergo surgical treatment, you will want to take good care of yourself before surgery. It is helpful to make sure that you are eating right, resting, and getting regular exercise.

There will be a recovery period after the surgery, and your doctor will indicate when he or she feels that you can resume full activity. The recovery period varies with the surgical procedure used. Recovery from the laparoscopic approach appears to be quicker than with the traditional open approach, and with interstitial seed therapy, the convalescence is much shorter than with surgery. If, however, you have trouble voiding after the procedure, you may require clean intermittent catheterization until the swelling in your prostate subsides. You can travel while performing clean intermittent catheterization; you just need to pack a catheter and the lubricating jelly.

Radiation therapy takes several weeks to complete, and because it is performed 5 of the 7 days of the week, it requires that you “stay put” for a period of time. All forms of therapy may fatigue you for a few weeks after the procedure, but by one month after treatment, you should be back to full activity. If you are receiving the intramuscular form of hormone therapy and you wish to travel, you can make arrangements with urologists in the area to which you are traveling to get the shots. Often, your doctor can send a letter to the urologist in advance.

Is it true that radiation therapy / radio surgery may be faster and cheaper than all alternative therapies?

Radiation therapy / Radiosurgery, also known as hypofractionation, is another alternative for patients with prostate cancer. Several clinical trials are currently underway evaluating the efficacy of such a treatment. Hypofractionation delivers radiation over a period of 5 days in contrast to the traditional 6-8 weeks for radiation therapy, however with higher radiation doses in a shorter period of time, there is the potential for increased side effects and decreased efficacy. This continues to be explored as an option for patients with lower grade, early stage prostate cancer.

Can I work during radiation therapy?

Unfortunately, radiation therapy can not be used as an excuse to avoid work, avoid doing errands, and cleaning the garage. Over the course of treatment, patients will never have to miss a single day of work aside from devoting certain time slots to radiation therapy sessions. The patient’s energy level, ability to concentrate and ability to function are largely unaffected due to this non-invasive, pain-free method for treating certain types of prostate cancer!

Will I be incontinent after radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy can cause incontinence if the urinary sphincter is damaged by the radiation. Fortunately, with Intensity Modulated IRMT), the risk of urinary incontinence is extremely rare. This may occur in patients who have had previous surgeries prior to radiation such as a radical prostatectomy, cryotherapy or a TURP but this should be discussed in detail with the radiation oncologist.