Your team of doctors will help you decide which prostate cancer treatment is the best, most effective option for you. Each treatment has its benefits, risks and impacts on quality of life. Several treatments are very successful in providing a cure or keeping the cancer under control for many years. Most men with prostate cancer are living testimony to this.
Some prostate cancers grow quickly and spread — or metastasize — to other parts of the body. If unchecked, these cancers can be fatal. Most prostate cancers, however, are slow growing and in many cases, immediate treatment isn't necessary. Many men take several months to decide what to do. The decision can be complicated. You should consider the pros and cons of the various treatments, get second opinions and decide what is best for you, all of which may take time.The right treatment for you may depend on a number of factors including:
- Attitudes about cure and living with cancer
- General health and specific medical conditions
- Life expectancy
- Needs, concerns, values and social relationships
- Stage and grade of the cancer
Determining if your cancer is confined to the prostate is key in choosing a treatment. If the cancer is confined to the prostate, you may consider a localized treatment that attempts a cure. If the cancer has spread — to nearby lymph nodes or more distantly to bones or other organs — then the goal of treatment may be to control the cancer rather than cure it.
No matter which treatment or combination of treatments you and your doctor choose, your PSA should be monitored regularly. Here are some of the treatment options for prostate cancer:
Some prostate cancer patients don't pursue any active treatment and instead use a "watch and wait" approach, also known as active surveillance, which involves extensive monitoring. This may be recommended if the cancer is very small and confined to one area of the prostate; is expected to grow very slowly; or if the patient is elderly, frail or has other serious health problems. Since prostate cancer tends to grow very slowly, older men with the disease may never need treatment. Younger patients, or those with a life expectancy greater than 10 years, may need a more aggressive approach. The best candidates for this regimen are those with small, low grade cancers associated with low and stable PSA levels.
Some men, however, may decide that the side effects of more aggressive treatments outweigh the benefits and they turn to alternative therapies to slow cancer development. In these cases, close monitoring is critical so if the cancer develops into a more serious form, it is immediately detected.
More than 500 patients at the UCSF Prostate Cancer Center have chosen active surveillance. About one in five on active surveillance receive treatment two to three years after diagnosis, after a change is detected such as a rapidly rising PSA level or increased tumor size.
At UCSF, men on active surveillance have PSA levels checked every three to fourth months, prostate ultrasounds every six to nine months and prostate biopsies after one year of active surveillance, then again every one to two years.
Chemotherapy drugs are commonly used to treat many different cancers. They kill cancer cells directly, usually by disrupting the reproductive cycle of those cells. Chemotherapy usually is used with patients whose prostate cancer has metastasized outside the prostate and for whom hormone therapy has failed.
In the past, chemotherapy has shown only limited effectiveness in treating advanced prostate cancer. More recently, new developments in this approach — such as giving two or more drugs together, using newly developed chemotherapy agents, and combining chemotherapy with hormone therapy — have significantly improved treatment outcomes.
Cryosurgery, used to treat localized prostate cancer, kills the cancer cells in the prostate by freezing them. Probes containing liquid nitrogen are inserted into the prostate and maneuvered using ultrasound to destroy prostate tissue. This method has shown good results in treating cancer confined to the prostate, but is only offered at a limited number of medical centers around the country.
Some doctors believe that the entire prostate must be frozen, which impacts the nerve bundles on the sides of the gland. Impotence almost always results from cryosurgery when the entire gland is treated. Urinary incontinence also may occur. Some doctors are performing "nerve-sparing" cryotherapy, where only the cancerous area of the prostate is treated. This is often used for men who have failed other therapies, such as radiation therapy.
Prostate cancer cells usually require testosterone — the main male hormone or androgen — to grow. Lowering androgen levels with hormone therapy can stop or slow cancer growth. Hormone therapy may control the cancer, often for a number of years, but it is not a cure. Usually, the cancer will change over time into a form that no longer needs testosterone to grow, called androgen independent, at which point other treatments are considered.
Most prostate cancers are very responsive to hormone therapy when first diagnosed and it is usually recommended as the initial treatment for advanced cancers, including prostate cancers that have metastasized or spread. Hormone therapy does have significant side effects, such as a decrease in sexual desire and some level of erectile dysfunction. The decision to undergo this therapy should be considered carefully.
Intermittent Hormone Therapy
In this approach, also called intermittent androgen blockade, a patient is placed on hormone therapy for a period of some months to a year or more. After the patient's PSA level has dropped close to zero and remains at this level, the hormone therapy is stopped. When the PSA rises to a certain level following the return of testosterone production, the hormone therapy is resumed.
The length of time that a man can stay off treatment may range from several months to well over a year. The intermittent approach may reduce some of the side effects of hormone therapy, improve quality of life and allow some men to regain their sexual interest and potency during the off period.
This method is regarded as experimental. Studies are being conducted to compare its effectiveness with continuous hormone therapy and to determine if it delays androgen independence.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays and particles to kill cancer cells. The two main types are external beam radiation therapy (EBRT) and brachytherapy.
External Beam Radiation Therapy
Radiation, usually in the form of X-rays, is focused from a source outside the body onto the area affected by cancer. After imaging studies are done to locate the cancer, treatment is designed to guide where the radiation beams will be directed. Marks are placed on the patient's skin to help position the patient for treatment. Patients are treated five days per week over a period of seven to eight weeks, with each treatment lasting only a few minutes. Patients return home after each treatment and no hospital stay is required.
- 3-D Conformal Radiation Therapy This is a state-of-the-art form of external beam radiation therapy that uses a sophisticated computer program to map the prostate gland more precisely and pinpoint radiation beams from up to six or seven different directions. An external mold cast keeps the patient still. This more accurate aiming from multiple sources reduces the radiation received by nearby tissues while concentrating the dose at the cancer site. A more advanced form of this therapy — intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) — can vary the intensity of the radiation beams. Another improvement on this treatment involves placing gold seeds into the prostate to help increase the accuracy of the external beams.
- Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT) This is the most advanced form of 3-D conformal radiation therapy, which adjusts the radiation beam to the contours of a tumor, allowing for higher, more effective doses of radiation while minimizing exposure to surrounding healthy tissue.
- Proton Beam Radiation Therapy Presently available at only a few medical centers in the country, this advanced approach uses protons rather than X-rays. Studies have shown that proton beam therapy is effective in treating localized prostate cancer. However, the data are inconclusive as to whether proton therapy yields better outcomes than X-ray therapy.
- CyberKnife One of the most advanced forms of radiosurgery, this is a painless, non-invasive therapy that delivers high doses of precisely targeted radiation to destroy tumors or lesions within the body. Radiosurgery minimizes radiation exposure to healthy tissue surrounding the tumor. The CyberKnife uses a robotic arm to deliver highly focused beams of radiation. The flexibility of the robotic arm makes it possible to treat areas of the body, such as the spine and spinal cord, that can't be treated by other radiosurgery techniques. We are one of the few medical centers in California that offers this treatment.
There are two forms of this treatment — permanent and temporary.
- Permanent Seed Implant (SI) In this treatment, small radioactive pellets, often called "seeds," each about the size of a grain of rice, are implanted into the prostate. These seeds contain radioactive isotopes such as iodine 125 or palladium 103. Seeds are permanently placed in the prostate and give off radiation for periods of weeks or months. This is done as an outpatient procedure. Imaging tests such as a transrectal ultrasound or an MRI are used to accurately guide the placement of the seeds into the prostate. The seeds are placed inside thin needles inserted through the skin of the perineum, the area between the scrotum and anus.
- Temporary Seed Implant (SI) In this approach, also called high-dose rate brachytherapy (HDR), the radioactive material, such as iridium, is placed in the inserted needles for relatively short periods of time and then withdrawn from the prostate. Two to three treatments administered over one to two days in a hospital is usually required.
For more information, please see our FAQ on Radiation Therapy for Prostate Cancer.
A radical prostatectomy removes the entire prostate gland and some surrounding tissue. Usually, it is performed when the cancer has not spread far outside the gland. The surgery is done under general anesthesia, generally takes two to four hours and requires a hospital stay of one to two days. Prostatectomies have been performed successfully for many years. In the past, these procedures were regarded as the "gold standard" although other techniques have yielded similarly good results.
There is still no guarantee, however, that the cancer will not return. Some cancers are found to be more extensive or aggressive than believed before surgery, indicating a higher risk for cancer recurrence. The value of the procedure is that the primary tumor is removed and more accurate staging of the cancer can be done.
Here are the main types of radical prostatectomy:
- Laparoscopic In this procedure, the prostate is removed through five very small (less than 1 centimeter) incisions using lighted, magnified scopes and cameras. The prostate is removed in a small bag through one of the incisions, which is expanded to 2 to 3 centimeters. Potential benefits of this procedure are less pain and earlier return to normal activities. This procedure can be used as a nerve-sparing approach that can lower, but not completely eliminate the risk of impotence after surgery. In a nerve-sparing approach, the surgeon tries to preserve one or both of the small nerve bundles needed for unassisted erections. If cancer has spread to the nerves, nerve sparing may not be advised. Lymph nodes also can be removed for examination with laparoscopic surgery.
- Perineal In this procedure, the prostate is removed through an incision in the skin between the scrotum and anus. The lymph nodes cannot be removed through this incision. If the lymph nodes need to be examined, they are removed through a small abdominal incision or by a laparoscopic procedure. Nerve sparing also can be performed perineally.
- Retropubic In this procedure, an incision is made in the lower abdomen to remove the prostate as well as lymph nodes for examination. This procedure also can be used as a nerve-sparing approach.
- Robotic Radical Prostatectomy This advanced laparoscopic procedure uses a robotic system, called the daVinci Surgical System that provides a magnified, 3-dimensional view during the operation and maintains surgeon dexterity through its robotic arms. At UCSF, the robotic system is used to perform radical prostatectomy.
New Treatments and Clinical Trials
Research has increased our overall understanding of prostate cancer and new treatments are being tested in patients. Clinical trials primarily involve patients who have rising PSAs after treatment or who have more advanced, metastatic cancers. A number of new agents may eventually provide more treatment options for new and recurring cancers. But at this time, none of them are regarded as cures, or even as replacements for surgery, radiation or hormone therapy.
Generally, patients being treated with these new approaches have experienced fewer side effects than patients receiving more traditional treatments.
Alternative and Complementary Therapies
In adults with severe stenosis, the valve is often stiff and calcified, and treatment is more likely to include surgical replacement with either a manufactured valve or a valve from an animal, usually a pig. Another surgical repair involved removing obstructive tissue below the valve, which may be done in conjunction with valve replacement. Studies indicate that surgical valvotomy has a 25-year survival rate of 95 percent, or about the same as the normal population.
Most patients who have been treated surgically or with balloon valvuloplasty in childhood will have normal lives. They usually do not require continuous antibiotic treatment but it may be recommended for some people who have additional complications. The likelihood of requiring a repeat procedure is very low — 5 percent at 25 years. However, it is recommended that all patients be evaluated by a cardiologist specializing in adult congenital heart disease at least once. At that time, an echocardiogram should be performed. Thereafter, yearly physical examinations are recommended with repeat echocardiogram should there be a change in the physical examination or new symptoms.
UCSF Health medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your provider.
Treatments we specialize in
Brachytherapy (HDR & LDR)
Radioactive material is placed inside a tumor or very close to it to treat the tumor and spare healthy tissue.Learn more
Radiosurgery minimizes radiation exposure to healthy tissue surrounding a tumor and offers rapid relief from pain and other symptoms.Learn more
Heat is used to kill small cancer tumors and to enhance the effectiveness of radiation and chemotherapy.Learn more
Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)
The advanced technique focuses strong radiation on the tumor and spares surrounding healthy tissue.Learn more
The procedure removes the prostate gland and attached seminal vesicles.Learn more
Robotic radical prostatectomy
A laparoscopic operation removes the prostate gland through small incisions using a state-of-the-art robotic system.Learn more
Nutrition and Prostate Cancer
Good nutrition may reduce the incidence of prostate cancer and help reduce the risk of prostate cancer progression. Learn more here.
Patient's Guide to Prostate Cancer
Understanding prostate cancer and making treatment decisions can be difficult. We hope these guidelines will help you in the course of treatment you choose.
Prostate Cancer Glossary
Use this Prostate Cancer Glossary to help you understand some of the more esoteric terminology including, adjuvant, brachytherapy, seminal vesicles and more.
FAQ: Radiation Therapy for Prostate Cancer
Answers to commonly asked questions about radiation therapy for prostate cancer, including what you can expect to feel during and after, side effects, and special issues.
FAQ: Cancer Pathology Tissue Slides
Find frequently asked questions regarding cancer pathology tissue slides, such as how to obtain the slides and what to do with them once you do.
FAQ: Cancer Radiology Scans and Reports
Learn the difference between a radiology report and radiology films or scans as well as why your doctor may be requesting these scans and more.
Self-Care for Caregivers
Caregiver fatigue can be brought on by the physical and emotional demands of caring for a loved one with a serious illness. Learn tips to combat caregiver fatigue here.
Communicating with Your Doctor
The relationship with a doctor is a very personal one, built on communication and trust. In choosing a doctor, the "chemistry" between the two of you must work.
Coping with Chemotherapy
Each person experiences side effects from chemotherapy differently, and different chemotherapy drugs cause different side effects. Learn more here.
Delegation to Help with Fatigue
Fatigue caused by cancer treatment can make it difficult to accomplish even the smallest of tasks. Learn how task delegation can help with this fatigue.
Diet for Cancer Treatment Side Effects
Nausea is a common side effect of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Find practical tips and suggested foods to help with nausea here.
Managing Your Treatment
Living with or caring for someone with cancer can be a full-time job. Here are some tips to reduce stress and help navigate the disease more effectively.
Nutrition and Coping with Cancer Symptoms
Side effects of cancer treatment may affect your eating pattern, requiring new ways to get the calories, protein and nutrients that you need. Learn more.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
Your time with the doctor is limited, thus it's helpful to prepare for the visit in advance by prioritizing the questions that are important to you. Learn more.
Resources for End of Life
The UCSF Cancer Resource Center has a list of bereavement support groups, counselors, hospice and others dealing with end-of-life issues. Learn more.
Tips for Conserving Your Energy
Cancer and cancer therapy can be accompanied by feelings of extreme fatigue. To help you deal with this fatigue, follow these easy tips help conserve energy.
Using a Medical Calendar and Symptom Log
Take time at the end of each day or each week to reflect back on the symptoms you've had. You can use a calendar to track your symptoms. Learn more here.
Seeking care at UCSF Health