Side Effects of Prostate Cancer Treatments Similar in Long Run: Study

Researchers comparing surgery, radiation therapy did find short-term differences in men's sexual, urinary, bowel problems

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By Carina Storrs
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 30 (HealthDay News) For men with prostate cancer who are trying to decide between surgery or radiation therapy, new research shows that declines in sexual, urinary and bowel function do differ with each treatment in the short-term, but those declines tend to even out in the long run.

The study included more than 1,600 men treated for early-stage prostate cancer. Researchers asked them about their urinary, sexual and bowel health following either surgery to remove the prostate or radiation therapy.

Although the rates of health decline in these areas differed at two and five years after treatment, men reported similar declines regardless of their treatment after 15 years.

While men who underwent surgery experienced higher rates of urinary incontinence and erectile dysfunction two and five years later, men who received radiation therapy had higher rates of bowel urgency, or feeling like they had to pass stool but not being able to do so.

The study was published in the Jan. 31 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

"Our hope was that measuring patient-reported outcomes at a 15-year time point would provide patients and their physicians with a realistic picture of the prostate cancer survivorship experience," said study author Dr. Matthew Resnick, an instructor of urologic surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.

Urinary, sexual and bowel problems are among the most common side effects of treatment for prostate cancer, Resnick added. Declines are probably due to a combination of the treatment and aging in general, and the side effects even out after 15 years.

However, the shorter-term differences could be enough to steer some men toward one treatment or the other.

"There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach; different men feel differently about the possibility of benefits and risks of treatment," Resnick said. For example, men who were already experiencing urinary incontinence might want to choose a treatment like radiation therapy because it was associated with lower rates of urinary problems in the short-term.

Surgery to remove the entire prostate, called radical prostatectomy, and radiation therapy are both recommended treatments for low- and medium-risk prostate cancer, according to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines.

However, these guidelines state that, for men with low-risk prostate cancer, watchful waiting -- closely monitoring the disease and treating it only if it changes -- is the best option.

It remains to be seen how men who opt for watchful waiting will fare in terms of their urinary, sexual and bowel health, especially in the long-term, Resnick noted.

Previous research has found doing watchful waiting for one year after diagnosis was associated with lower rates of urinary incontinence and sexual dysfunction, but higher rates of urinary blockage seven years later, compared to men who were treated immediately.

The current study involved 1,655 men who had stage 1 or 2 prostate cancer, which had not spread beyond the prostate. Men were diagnosed between ages 55 and 74 in 1994 and 1995, and most were treated in the year of diagnosis.

About 70 percent of the participants had radical prostatectomy, while the remaining 30 percent had external-beam radiation therapy, in which high-energy rays are directed from outside the body.

Treatment choice can vary based on a number of factors including age, prostate cancer stage and other diseases, Resnick said. The researchers took into account these differences when analyzing treatment outcomes.

The study authors asked the men about their urinary, sexual and bowel function before they had been diagnosed, as well as in the months following treatment. Participants also rated their own health in these areas.

Although there were declines after both treatments, men who received surgery reported sharper declines in urinary and sexual health, from a score of about 95 and 70, respectively, before surgery to about 60 and 20 in the months after.