The good news: You have options. Get to know what’s available based on your personal diagnosis.
Just been diagnosed with prostate cancer? It’s only natural to feel a little worried. But take this to heart: Prostate is one of the most curable forms of cancer. The toughest part may be deciding which treatment to go with.
“The prognosis is quite good,” says Stacey Loeb, M.D., professor of urology and population health at New York University. “There are lots of treatment options available. You and your doctor will work together to choose the best one for you.”
Ready to take the first step? Let’s go.
Step 1: Know Your Numbers
Not only are there many varieties of prostate cancer treatments, but there are also many varieties of prostate cancers. That makes it important to take some time to learn about yours and discuss your options with your doctor. “Treatment varies according to your individual cancer,” says Dr. Loeb. “It’s really important to learn about the specific features of your case.”
Ask your doctor or nurse, or check your patient portal, to find out:
- Your PSA level. This will be your baseline number based on a blood test at diagnosis. Your doctor will use it to track the progress of your treatments. The higher the number, the more likely it is that you’ve got prostate cancer.
- Your grade. When you had your biopsy, your doctor likely removed some small pieces of tissue from your prostate and examined them under a microscope, then used a grading system to score your cancer. The classic system is the Gleason score. It assigns your cancer a number from 6 to 10. The higher the number, the more advanced your cancer is. Some doctors may use the grade group instead. It ranges from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest).
- Your clinical stage. This can range from T2 to T4. The lower the number, the more contained your cancer cells are in your prostate. Having higher numbers means that the cancer has begun to move beyond the walls of your prostate and into neighboring organs, like your bladder or your rectum.
- Your metastases. This is the “TNM” scoring system. It tells you whether your cancer has spread, or metastasized, into other organs of your body, like your lymph nodes or your bones.
Step 2: Know Your Options
Now that you know your scores, you and your doctor can have a conversation about your treatment.
If You’re at Low Risk
If your cancer is localized — meaning it’s confined to a small area of your prostate — and the grade is low, your doctor may recommend a strategy called active surveillance. “Active surveillance means no up-front treatments,” says Dr. Loeb. Why would you go the no-treatment route?
Even though prostate cancer treatments are hugely successful, the side effects can sometimes be tough. And prostate cancer usually grows slowly. So if your numbers show that you’re in the low-risk category, your doctor may suggest a wait-and-see approach, rather than jumping right into treatment. Studies show that as many as 40% of patients are overtreated. That can put them at an unnecessary risk for those uncomfortable side effects.
“If the cancer is low grade — lower than a Gleason score of 6 — and if the PSA is low, we monitor the cancer carefully over time,” says Dr. Loeb.
What this means: Repeat the PSA test every six months, repeat exams every year, and repeat biopsies every 1 to 5 years. Historically, the results from this method have been excellent. One trial from the United Kingdom looked at men with early-stage prostate cancer. It found no difference in outcomes between those who were actively monitored and those who underwent surgery or radiation.
If You’re at Medium Risk
If your cancer is still confined to your prostate but the grade is higher and has moved beyond one spot, your doctor may suggest a more aggressive treatment. “When your Gleason is 7 or higher, the longstanding gold standard for treatment is surgery or radiation therapy,” says Dr. Loeb.
- Radiation: First, a computer will take a three-dimensional image of your prostate. Then a team of radiation oncologists will use that information to plan your treatment. They’ll be able to zap high-energy X-ray beams to exactly the right place(s), killing the cancer cells but leaving everything else pretty much untouched.
- External-beam radiation therapy (EBRT): This form of radiation uses a machine to scan outside your body over a period of eight or nine weeks.
- Hypofractionated radiation therapy: This newer form of radiation shoots larger doses of radiation over your body for a shorter period of time.
- Brachytherapy: This is internal radiation. A radiation oncologist uses computer imaging as a guide so they can place radioactive seeds at strategic points inside your prostate. They stay in there, emitting radiation, until they eventually die off.
- Surgery: If your health is pretty good, your doctor may consider you an optimal candidate for surgery. The surgeon will remove your prostate and surrounding tissues, and possibly the lymph nodes in your pelvis. You’ll probably stay in the hospital for one or two days after the operation.
Both surgery and radiation are highly effective, so you and your doctor should work together to decide which option is best for you.
If You’re at High Risk
If your Gleason score shows that your cancer has spread beyond your prostate into surrounding organs, or even into your bones, your cancer has metastasized. Dr. Loeb notes that you shouldn’t necessarily fret straight away: There are still many effective treatment options available. “The prognosis is better than ever,” she says. “It’s a really hopeful time for men with advanced prostate cancer.”
Take a look at your treatment options:
- Chemotherapy: If your cancer is advanced, chemotherapy — which includes drugs targeted at killing your cancer cells — can be really effective at helping you live longer, improving your quality of life, and reducing any pain. “Since 2004, there’s been a boom in the development of new drugs and combinations of drugs,” says Dr. Loeb. If you go the chemotherapy route, your medical oncologist will be an important part of your team.
- Hormone therapy: Prostate cancer is supercharged by hormones called androgens — especially testosterone. To slow down the cancer’s growth, hormone therapy can cut off the supply with a treatment called androgen deprivation therapy. Here, you’ll receive periodic injections at your doctor’s office, or you’ll take pills at home. When your cancer cells stop getting testosterone, they die off, making it a highly effective treatment. Often, it’s also used in higher-risk localized cases, along with radiation.
Step 3: Know the Side Effects of Each
Your doctor will help guide you to the best treatment, but ultimately, the decision is yours. Begin with a positive attitude and a healthy lifestyle. And take steps to stay mentally and emotionally strong, like finding a support group.
Also, be aware of what you can expect during your course of treatment. “There’s no golden bullet for prostate cancer,” says Dr. Loeb. “There are advantages and disadvantages to each treatment.”
Knowledge is power: Here’s what you need to know to be prepared for any possible side effects. Be sure to talk to your doctor about any concerns — there’s almost always a solution.
- Active surveillance: Men who choose active surveillance may sometimes have anxiety, which could lead them to jump into more invasive treatments that aren’t necessary. A study at the State University of New York at Buffalo looked at men with low-risk prostate cancer who were more stressed out when they made their treatment decision. It found they were more likely to choose radiation or surgery rather than continuing with active surveillance. That’s why finding ways to cope with emotional stress is so important. Another risk is infection from the prostate biopsy.
- Radiation: Soon after your radiation is over, there’s a good chance you may have some urinary and bowel irritation, as well as problems with erections. “There might be urinary issues because radiation is so close to the bladder,” says Dr. Loeb. “And some sexual dysfunction, since the radiation is around the area where the nerves control erections.” Talk to your doctor about possible solutions.
- Surgery: Problems with urinary control may be worse with surgery than with radiation, and problems with erections are common. But, explains Dr. Loeb, “you’re undergoing an invasive procedure and the worst of everything happens right up front. With surgery, the side effects start immediately and tend to improve over time.”
- Chemotherapy: Modern chemotherapy drugs are often tolerated well by most patients. A small percentage of men might have a low white blood cell count, but that’s usually easy to address with certain medications. Other side effects may include hair loss, fatigue, and numbness in your fingers and toes. However, most of these issues are treatable, or go away on their own. Dr. Loeb’s advice: Talk to your doctor about what type of treatment is best in your case. “Every year, new clinical trials are coming out showing great success for patients.”
- Hormone therapy: Cutting off the testosterone supply has side effects ranging from hot flashes and mood swings to weight gain, muscle loss, and erectile dysfunction. Studies show that exercise and diet can go a long way toward addressing weight gain and muscle loss. And your doctor can help you find ways to address erectile dysfunction. And as is the case with all treatment side effects, don’t be afraid to speak up if you’re confused, concerned, or simply have questions.