There is good news and bad news when it comes to the side effects of prostate cancer treatments. The good news is that huge improvements have been made over the years. As a result, the severity of side effects has reduced significantly.
However, the bad news is that side effects still exist. It is important to understand how and why they occur. By doing so, you may be able to minimize the impact they have on your daily life.
Here are the side effects most commonly associated with prostate cancer treatment: urinary dysfunction, bowel dysfunction, erectile dysfunction, loss of fertility, effects related to the loss of testosterone and side effects of chemotherapy. Depending on the treatments being used to combat your particular cancer, you may develop some or all of these.
Let’s look at them in more detail. Urinary dysfunction describes both urinary incontinence – which can range from intermittent leaking to complete loss of bladder control – and urinary bother, which includes increased urinary frequency, increased urgency and pain upon urination.
It’s usually men undergoing prostatectomy who experience incontinence. Typically, this problem resolves itself within months.
External beam radiotherapy can irritate the bladder and urethra, causing inflammation of the prostate. These symptoms usually lessen over time too.
In fact, some form of urinary dysfunction is normal following therapy for localised prostate cancer. However, not all symptoms are normal. Some may require immediate care.
Drugs can improve urinary flow. Flomax and Hytrin and other alpha-blockers are commonly used for at least a few weeks and are gradually withdrawn as symptoms improve.
To tackle persistent urinary incontinence, collagen may be injected into the urethra. This tightens the passage, preventing leakage. However, such effects only last for a short time. Surgery may be necessary for those who suffer from long-term problems.
Bowel dysfunction is another common side effect of treatment. This includes diarrhea or frequent stools, fecal incontinence and rectal bleeding.
As techniques improve, these side effects are becoming less common. Unfortunately, they do still occur, particularly following external beam radiotherapy.
Along with urinary and bowel dysfunction, most men will also experience some erectile dysfunction after treatment. The good news is that this should have improved, if not entirely disappeared, within a year.
If it hasn’t, there are ways of managing the problem. Oral medications are effective for many men. There are also medicated pellets which are inserted into the urethra, drugs which are injected into the penis and mechanical devices such as pumps. Surgery – in which a penile implant is inserted – is another option.
One of the saddest implications of prostate cancer treatment is that despite the best efforts of surgeons and oncologists, it is next to impossible for a man to be able to father children through sexual intercourse afterwards. However, this doesn’t mean that fatherhood is no longer an option.
You could try sperm banking. Semen containing sperm can be stored and artificially inseminated when required. Sperm can also be extracted directly from the testicles.
Some specific treatments bring about side effects of their own. Hormone treatment is particularly problematic. Hot flashes, decreased sexual desire, erectile dysfunction, fatigue, osteoporosis, weight gain, decreased muscle mass, anemia and memory loss; all can result from testosterone depletion.
It’s not all bad news though. There are ways of managing these symptoms and research is ongoing into how best to do so.
Finally, there’s chemotherapy. What’s so complicated about this therapy is that no two people are the same. Nor are cancers. This means that no two people will react to drugs in the same way.
As a result, you’ll have to pay close attention to how your body reacts. Discuss all side effects with your doctor. There are plenty of drugs available to help you counteract them.
By working together, you can ensure that your body is strong and able to focus on its primary task – fighting cancer and returning to full health.