Prostate Cancer

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Treating Prostate Cancer TOPICS

Cryosurgery for prostate cancer

Cryosurgery (also called cryotherapy or cryoablation) is sometimes used to treat early stage prostate cancer by freezing it. As with brachytherapy, this may not be a good option for men with large prostate glands.

In this approach, several hollow probes (needles) are placed through the skin between the anus and scrotum. The doctor guides them into the prostate using transrectal ultrasound (TRUS). This type of procedure requires spinal or epidural anesthesia (where the lower half of your body is numbed) or general anesthesia (where you are asleep).

Very cold gases are then passed through the needles, creating ice balls that destroy the prostate gland. To be sure the prostate is destroyed without too much damage to nearby tissues, the doctor carefully watches the ultrasound images during the procedure. Warm saltwater is circulated through a catheter in the urethra during the procedure to keep it from freezing. The catheter is kept in place for about 3 weeks afterward to allow the bladder to empty while you recover.

After the procedure, there will be some bruising and soreness in the area where the probes were inserted. You might need to stay in the hospital overnight, but many patients leave the same day.

Cryosurgery is less invasive than radical prostatectomy, so there is usually less blood loss, a shorter hospital stay, shorter recovery period, and less pain than with surgery. But compared with surgery or radiation therapy, doctors know much less about the long-term effectiveness of cryosurgery.

Cryosurgery doesn’t appear to be as good as radiation for more advanced prostate tumors. In a study comparing cryosurgery to radiation therapy for locally advanced prostate cancer (T2c to T3b tumors), more men in the cryosurgery group had elevated PSA levels (a sign that their cancers had come back) after 8 years than the men in the radiation group.

Current techniques using ultrasound guidance and precise temperature monitoring have only been available for a few years.

For this reason, most doctors do not often use cryosurgery as the first treatment for prostate cancer. It is sometimes recommended if the cancer has come back after other treatments.

Possible side effects of cryosurgery

Side effects from cryosurgery tend to be worse if it is done in men who have already had radiation therapy, as opposed to men who have it as the first form of treatment.

Most men have blood in their urine for a day or two after the procedure, as well as soreness in the area where the needles were placed. Swelling of the penis or scrotum is also common. The freezing may also affect the bladder and intestines, which can lead to pain, burning sensations, and the need to empty the bladder and bowels often. Most men recover normal bowel and bladder function over time.

Freezing damages nerves near the prostate and causes impotence in up to 4 out of 5 men who have cryosurgery. Erectile dysfunction is more common after cryosurgery than after radical prostatectomy. For information on coping with erection problems and other sexuality issues, see our document Sexuality for the Man With Cancer.

Urinary incontinence is rare in men who have cryosurgery as their first treatment for prostate cancer, but it is more common in men who have already had radiation therapy.

After cryosurgery, less than 1% of men develop a fistula (an abnormal connection) between the rectum and bladder. This rare but serious problem can allow urine to leak into the rectum and often requires surgery to repair.

Last Medical Review: 08/26/2013
Last Revised: 09/12/2014