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Prostate Cancer Treatment Option Overview

There are different types of treatment for patients with prostate cancer.

Different types of treatment are available for patients with prostate cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Eight types of standard treatment are used:

Watchful waiting or active surveillance

Watchful waiting and active surveillance are treatments used for older men who do not have signs or symptoms or have other medical conditions and for men whose prostate cancer is found during a screening test.

Watchful waiting is closely monitoring a patient’s condition without giving any treatment until signs or symptoms appear or change. Treatment is given to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.

Active surveillance is closely following a patient's condition without giving any treatment unless there are changes in test results. It is used to find early signs that the condition is getting worse. In active surveillance, patients are given certain exams and tests, including digital rectal exam, PSA test, transrectal ultrasound, and transrectal needle biopsy, to check if the cancer is growing. When the cancer begins to grow, treatment is given to cure the cancer.

Other terms that are used to describe not giving treatment to cure prostate cancer right after diagnosis are observation, watch and wait, and expectant management.

Surgery

Patients in good health whose tumor is in the prostate gland only may be treated with surgery to remove the tumor. The following types of surgery are used:

  • Radical prostatectomy: A surgical procedure to remove the prostate, surrounding tissue, and seminal vesicles. Removal of nearby lymph nodes may be done at the same time. The main types of radical prostatectomy include:
    • Open radical prostatectomy: An incision (cut) is made in the retropubic area (lower abdomen) or the perineum (the area between the anus and scrotum). Surgery is performed through the incision. It is harder for the surgeon to spare the nerves near the prostate or to remove nearby lymph nodes with the perineum approach.
    • Radical laparoscopic prostatectomy: Several small incisions (cuts) are made in the wall of the abdomen. A laparoscope (a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and lens for viewing) is inserted through one opening to guide the surgery. Surgical instruments are inserted through the other openings to do the surgery.
    • Robot-assisted laparoscopic radical prostatectomy: Several small cuts are made in the wall of the abdomen, as in regular laparoscopic prostatectomy. The surgeon inserts an instrument with a camera through one of the openings and surgical instruments through the other openings using robotic arms. The camera gives the surgeon a 3-dimensional view of the prostate and surrounding structures. The surgeon uses the robotic arms to do the surgery while sitting at a computer monitor near the operating table.
  • Pelvic lymphadenectomy: A surgical procedure to remove the lymph nodes in the pelvis. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells. If the lymph nodes contain cancer, the doctor will not remove the prostate and may recommend other treatment.
  • Transurethral resection of the prostate (TURP): A surgical procedure to remove tissue from the prostate using a resectoscope (a thin, lighted tube with a cutting tool) inserted through the urethra. This procedure is done to treat benign prostatic hypertrophy and it is sometimes done to relieve symptoms caused by a tumor before other cancer treatment is given. TURP may also be done in men whose tumor is in the prostate only and who cannot have a radical prostatectomy.

In some cases, the nerves that control penile erection can be saved with nerve-sparing surgery. However, this may not be possible in men with large tumors or tumors that are very close to the nerves.

Possible problems after prostate cancer surgery include the following:

  • Impotence.
  • Leakage of urine from the bladder or stool from the rectum.
  • Shortening of the penis (1 to 2 centimeters). The exact reason for this is not known.
  • Inguinal hernia (bulging of fat or part of the small intestine through weak muscles into the groin). Inguinal hernia may occur more often in men treated with radical prostatectomy than in men who have some other types of prostate surgery, radiation therapy, or prostate biopsy alone. It is most likely to occur within the first 2 years after radical prostatectomy.

Radiation therapy and radiopharmaceutical therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are different types of radiation therapy:

  • External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the area of the body with cancer. Conformal radiation is a type of external radiation therapy that uses a computer to make a 3-dimensional (3-D) picture of the tumor and shapes the radiation beams to fit the tumor. This allows a high dose of radiation to reach the tumor and causes less damage to nearby healthy tissue.

    Hypofractionated radiation therapy may be given because it has a more convenient treatment schedule. Hypofractionated radiation therapy is radiation treatment in which a larger than usual total dose of radiation is given once a day over a shorter period of time (fewer days) compared to standard radiation therapy. Hypofractionated radiation therapy may have worse side effects than standard radiation therapy, depending on the schedules used.

  • Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. In early-stage prostate cancer, the radioactive seeds are placed in the prostate using needles that are inserted through the skin between the scrotum and rectum. The placement of the radioactive seeds in the prostate is guided by images from transrectal ultrasound or computed tomography (CT). The needles are removed after the radioactive seeds are placed in the prostate.
  • Radiopharmaceutical therapy uses a radioactive substance to treat cancer. Radiopharmaceutical therapy includes the following:
    • Alpha emitter radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance to treat prostate cancer that has spread to the bone. A radioactive substance called radium-223 is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The radium-223 collects in areas of bone with cancer and kills the cancer cells.

The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. External radiation therapy, internal radiation therapy, and radiopharmaceutical therapy are used to treat prostate cancer.

Men treated with radiation therapy for prostate cancer have an increased risk of having bladder and/or gastrointestinal cancer.

Radiation therapy can cause impotence and urinary problems that may get worse with age.

Hormone therapy

Hormone therapy is a cancer treatment that removes hormones or blocks their action and stops cancer cells from growing. Hormones are substances made by glands in the body and circulated in the bloodstream. In prostate cancer, male sex hormones can cause prostate cancer to grow. Drugs, surgery, or other hormones are used to reduce the amount of male hormones or block them from working. This is called androgen deprivation therapy (ADT).

Hormone therapy for prostate cancer may include the following:

  • Abiraterone acetate can prevent prostate cancer cells from making androgens. It is used in men with advanced prostate cancer that has not gotten better with other hormone therapy. It is also used in men with high-risk prostate cancer that has improved with treatments that lower hormone levels.
  • Orchiectomy is a surgical procedure to remove one or both testicles, the main source of male hormones, such as testosterone, to decrease the amount of hormone being made.
  • Estrogens (hormones that promote female sex characteristics) can prevent the testicles from making testosterone. However, estrogens are seldom used today in the treatment of prostate cancer because of the risk of serious side effects.
  • Luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone agonists can stop the testicles from making testosterone. Examples are leuprolide, goserelin, and buserelin.
  • Antiandrogens can block the action of androgens (hormones that promote male sex characteristics), such as testosterone. Examples are flutamide, bicalutamide, enzalutamide, apalutamide, nilutamide, and darolutamide.
  • Drugs that can prevent the adrenal glands from making androgens include ketoconazole, aminoglutethimide, hydrocortisone, and progesterone.

Hot flashes, impaired sexual function, loss of desire for sex, and weakened bones may occur in men treated with hormone therapy. Other side effects include diarrhea, nausea, and itching.

See Drugs Approved for Prostate Cancer for more information.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy).

See Drugs Approved for Prostate Cancer for more information.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells. Targeted therapies usually cause less harm to normal cells than chemotherapy or radiation therapy do.

  • PARP inhibitors block an enzyme involved in many cell functions, including the repair of DNA damage. Blocking this enzyme may help keep cancer cells from repairing their damaged DNA, causing them to die. Olaparib is a PARP inhibitor used to treat patients with prostate cancer that has spread to other parts of the body and has mutations in certain genes, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body’s natural defenses against cancer. This cancer treatment is a type of biologic therapy. Sipuleucel-T is a type of immunotherapy used to treat prostate cancer that has metastasized (spread to other parts of the body).

See Drugs Approved for Prostate Cancer for more information.

Bisphosphonate therapy

Bisphosphonate drugs, such as clodronate or zoledronate, reduce bone disease when cancer has spread to the bone. Men who are treated with antiandrogen therapy or orchiectomy are at an increased risk of bone loss. In these men, bisphosphonate drugs lessen the risk of bone fracture (breaks). The use of bisphosphonate drugs to prevent or slow the growth of bone metastases is being studied in clinical trials.

There are treatments for bone pain caused by bone metastases or hormone therapy.

Prostate cancer that has spread to the bone and certain types of hormone therapy can weaken bones and lead to bone pain. Treatments for bone pain include the following:

  • Pain medicine.
  • External radiation therapy.
  • Strontium-89 (a radioisotope).
  • Targeted therapy with a monoclonal antibody, such as denosumab.
  • Bisphosphonate therapy.
  • Corticosteroids.

See the PDQ summary on Pain for more information.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.

Cryosurgery

Cryosurgery is a treatment that uses an instrument to freeze and destroy prostate cancer cells. Ultrasound is used to find the area that will be treated. This type of treatment is also called cryotherapy.

Cryosurgery can cause impotence and leakage of urine from the bladder or stool from the rectum.

High-intensity–focused ultrasound therapy

High-intensity–focused ultrasound therapy is a treatment that uses ultrasound (high-energy sound waves) to destroy cancer cells. To treat prostate cancer, an endorectal probe is used to make the sound waves.

Proton beam radiation therapy

Proton beam radiation therapy is a type of high-energy, external radiation therapy that uses streams of protons (tiny particles with a positive charge) to kill tumor cells. This type of treatment can lower the amount of radiation damage to healthy tissue near a tumor.

Photodynamic therapy

A cancer treatment that uses a drug and a certain type of laser light to kill cancer cells. A drug that is not active until it is exposed to light is injected into a vein. The drug collects more in cancer cells than in normal cells. Fiberoptic tubes are then used to carry the laser light to the cancer cells, where the drug becomes active and kills the cells. Photodynamic therapy causes little damage to healthy tissue. It is used mainly to treat tumors on or just under the skin or in the lining of internal organs.

Treatment for prostate cancer may cause side effects.

For information about side effects caused by treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI’s clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Navigating Care disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information. This information was sourced and adapted from Adapted from the National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ®) Cancer Information Summaries on www.cancer.gov.

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