At MD Anderson, you receive customized care that is planned by some of the nation’s leading prostate cancer experts. Your personal team of specialists works together at every step to be sure you receive the most advanced therapies with the fewest possible side effects.
Through our Multidisciplinary Prostate Clinic, your care team can help you weigh the benefits of each treatment and help you decide which is best for you.
Prostate cancer treatments
Your treatment plan will depend on a variety of factors, including:
- Overall health and well-being
- Grade and associated risk of your cancer
- Goals for treatment outcomes
Talk with your doctor about which treatments are available and how those treatments may affect you. One or more of the following therapies may be used to treat your cancer.
Active surveillance or watchful waiting
Because prostate cancer usually grows slowly, doctors may recommend some patients not be treated. These patients are typically older and/or have a very low-risk form of prostate cancer.
Instead, these patients can be put on active surveillance, or “watchful waiting.”
This approach involves closely monitoring the cancer without treatment. Prostate biopsy procedures and PSA tests are repeated at set intervals. Treatment may be recommended if the tests show the disease is progressing.
Prostate cancer surgery
Surgery for prostate cancer is known as a radical prostatectomy. During this procedure, the surgeon removes the entire prostate. Lymph nodes near the prostate may also be removed to look for evidence that the disease has spread.
Nearly all prostate cancer surgeries at MD Anderson are minimally invasive procedures performed with surgical robots. These surgeries result in smaller incisions, less blood loss, less pain and shorter hospital stays.
Surgery for prostate cancer usually requires an overnight hospital stay. Patients must wear a catheter for about one week after the procedure. They typically can return to work after two weeks. There are no restrictions on activity after four weeks.
Studies have shown that working with an experienced surgeon increases the odds for a successful procedure with fewer side effects. The surgeons at MD Anderson are among the most experienced and skilled in the world in prostate cancer surgeries.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams to kill disease cells. Along with surgery, it is one of the two most common primary treatments for prostate cancer. Compared to surgery, it offers better urinary control but is more likely to cause bowel and bladder irritability. Both can cause erectile dysfunction.
There are several different types of radiation therapy doctors recommend to prostate cancer patients. Most treatment plans require daily treatment for a number of weeks.
- Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): IMRT focuses multiple radiation beams of different intensities directly on the tumor for the highest possible dose of radiation. Radiation oncologists use special planning software to make sure the patient is properly positioned for the most accurate treatment.
- Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT): Also known as stereotactic ablative radiotherapy (SABR), SBRT administers very high doses of radiation, using several beams of various intensities aimed at different angles to precisely target the tumor. This treatment usually takes around 10 days, making it significantly shorter than other forms of radiation therapy.
- Brachytherapy: Brachytherapy delivers radiation therapy with small pieces of radioactive material (usually about the size of a grain of rice) that are placed inside the patient’s body as close to the tumor as possible. This allows doctors to deliver very high doses of radiation directly to the patient’s tumor while limiting radiation exposure to healthy tissue.
- Proton therapy: This type of therapy is similar to traditional radiation therapy, but it uses a different type of radiation and is much more accurate at targeting tumors.
- Radionuclide therapy: This type of radiation therapy is actually administered through an IV. It is used to treat prostate cancer bone metastases (prostate cancer that has spread to the bones).
MD Anderson has the most advanced radiation therapies and has radiation oncologists who specialize in prostate cancer. This allows us to offer the most effective radiation treatments while minimizing side effects.
The majority of prostate cancers are hormone-sensitive, which means male hormones (androgens) such as testosterone fuel the growth of prostate cancer. About one-third of prostate cancer patients require hormone therapy (also known as androgen deprivation therapy). While hormone therapy can reduce tumor size and make cancer grow more slowly, it does not cure the disease.
There are two main types of hormone therapy for prostate cancer patients:
- Antiandrogens: Antiandrogens are medications that block testosterone and other androgens from interacting with the cancer cell. They are taken by mouth every day. Antiandrogens are used most often in combination with androgen synthesis inhibitors.
- Androgen synthesis inhibitors: These drugs reduce levels of testosterone and other androgens produced by the body. A common type of androgen synthesis inhibitor is luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone (LHRH) agonists. Because LHRH agonists are often associated with a temporary increase in testosterone levels, they may be combined with anti-androgen medications. Androgen synthesis inhibitors are delivered by injections, which last from one to six months, or by small pellets implanted under the skin.
Hormone therapy is most often used for late-stage, high-grade tumors with a Gleason score of 8 or higher or in patients with cancer that has spread outside the prostate.
Hormone therapy may be used to treat prostate cancer if:
- Surgery or radiation is not possible
- Cancer has metastasized (spread) or recurred (come back after treatment)
- Cancer is at high risk of returning after radiation
- Shrinking the cancer before surgery or radiation increases the chance for successful treatment
Side effects of hormone therapies for prostate cancer may include:
- Impotence, inability to get or maintain an erection
- Loss of libido (sex drive)
- Hot flashes
- Growth of breast tissue and tenderness of breasts
- Loss of muscle mass, weakness
- Decreased bone mass (osteoporosis)
- Shrunken testicles
- Loss of alertness and higher cognitive functions
- Anemia (low red blood cell count)
- Weight gain
- Higher cholesterol levels
- Increased risk of heart attacks, diabetes and high blood pressure (hypertension)
If you are treated with hormone therapy and have side effects, be sure to mention them to your doctors. Many of these side effects can be treated successfully.
Chemotherapy drugs are designed to kill fast-growing cells, including cancer cells. For prostate cancer, chemotherapy is most often used to treat patients with a high-risk disease or whose cancer has recurred or metastasized.
Though rarely used, cryotherapy is the best choice for localized prostate cancer where tumors are small and surgery is not an option. During these procedures, a long, thin probe is inserted into the tumor, freezing and killing cancer cells. Intensive follow-up with X-rays or other imaging procedures is used to ensure that the tumor has been destroyed.
Immunotherapy recruits a patient's own immune system in the fight against cancer. Patients may be given a type of immunotherapy that involves engineering the immune cells of the body in a lab to recognize prostate cancer. This approach may be especially useful for patients with advanced prostate cancer that does not respond to hormone therapy.
High-intensity focused ultrasound
High-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) kills cancer tissue in the prostate with heat generated by focused ultrasound waves. The treatment may offer improved urinary and sexual function to some prostate cancer patients. HIFU is typically offered to patients with early-stage prostate cancer that is low- to intermediate-risk. The tumor must be visible on MRI. It must be confined to the prostate and be confirmed to contain prostate gland cells.
Prostate cancer clinical trials
As one of the world’s leading cancer centers, MD Anderson is home to many clinical trials for prostate cancer patients. Your care team may discuss clinical trials with you if they believe they offer you a better outcome than standard treatments.
Trials are designed to improve prostate cancer survival rates, minimize treatment side effects and support a higher quality of life for patients. They may include new drugs or drug combinations, new approaches to prostate cancer surgery, different forms of radiation therapy, or some combination of all three. Learn more about clinical trials.
What are the treatment plans for prostate cancer?
When prostate cancer is diagnosed, doctors use several different tests to determine the risk of disease progression. Patients in each risk group often get the same general recommendations for treatment.
Low-risk prostate cancer treatment
Many low-risk prostate cancers can go years or even decades without causing any serious health problems. Because of this, doctors often recommend active surveillance for these patients. During active surveillance, a patient is closely monitored for changes to his cancer.
In some cases, low-risk prostate cancer patients do choose to have treatment. A younger patient, for example, may select treatment instead of potentially decades of surveillance. Patients with low-risk disease may also choose treatment if they have certain genetic conditions or a large amount of cancer tissue.
Intermediate-risk prostate cancer treatment
Men with intermediate-risk prostate cancer should be treated in most cases. Treatment options typically are surgery to remove the prostate or radiation therapy. The patient may also get hormone therapy along with radiation therapy.
High-risk prostate cancer treatment
Low- and intermediate-risk prostate cancers are usually considered curable. Some high-risk prostate cancers can be cured. In other cases it is not curable and is treated like a chronic disease that must be managed.
Whether curable or not, high-risk prostate cancer is usually treated with a combination of therapies. Standard options include surgery, radiation therapy, hormone therapy and chemotherapy. Doctors will recommend the combination based on each patient’s specific cancer subtype, its stage, the patient’s age and other factors. They may also recommend a clinical trial if they believe that trial offers the best treatment. Clinical trials can be used to test new therapies or new combinations of existing therapies.
Recurrent prostate cancer treatment
For most patients, initial prostate cancer treatment includes either radiation therapy or surgery. If a patient’s prostate cancer returns, the other treatment option may be used. In addition, doctors may recommend the use of systemic therapies (therapies that travel throughout the body), like hormone therapy and possibly chemotherapy.
In some cases, patients can have what is known as biochemical recurrence. These patients have elevated PSA levels that indicate the disease has returned, but imaging exams do not show any cancer. Patients with biochemical recurrence are given intermittent hormone therapy and are monitored closely for further changes.
Metastatic prostate cancer treatment
If a patient’s prostate cancer has spread beyond the prostate and the surrounding area, he is given systemic therapies like hormone therapy and possibly chemotherapy. While cancer responds to hormone therapy, it is called castrate-sensitive disease. Over time, the disease may become less responsive to hormone therapy and start growing again. This is called castrate-resistant disease. Patients with castrate-resistant disease can be treated with a number of additional therapies. Many are eligible for clinical trials with newer drugs or drug combinations, including immunotherapy.
Some cases of prostate cancer can be passed down from one generation to the next. Learn more about genetic testing.
MD Anderson patients have access to clinical trials offering promising new treatments that cannot be found anywhere else.
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