Prostate Cancer

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Treating Prostate Cancer TOPICS

Prostate cancer that remains or recurs after treatment

If the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood level shows that the prostate cancer has not been cured or has come back (recurred) after an initial attempt to cure it, further treatment can often still be helpful. Follow-up therapy will depend on where the cancer is thought to be and what treatment(s) you have already had. Imaging tests such as CT, MRI, or bone scans may be done to get a better idea about where the cancer is.

Cancer that is still thought to be in or around the prostate

If the cancer is still thought to be localized to the area of the prostate, a second attempt to try to cure the cancer may be possible.

If you’ve had a radical prostatectomy, radiation therapy might be an option, sometimes along with hormone therapy.

If your first treatment was radiation, treatment options might include cryosurgery or radical prostatectomy, but when these treatments are done after radiation, they carry a higher risk for side effects such as incontinence. Repeating radiation therapy is usually not an option because of the increased potential for serious side effects, although in some cases brachytherapy maybe an option as a second treatment.

Sometimes it might not be clear exactly where the remaining cancer is in the body. If the only sign of cancer recurrence is a rising PSA level (as opposed to the cancer being seen on imaging tests), another option for some men might be careful observation instead of active treatment. Prostate cancer often grows slowly, so even if it does come back, it might not cause problems for many years, at which time further treatment could then be considered. In a Johns Hopkins University study of men whose PSA level began to rise after surgery for prostate cancer, there was an average of about 10 years before there were signs the cancer had spread to distant parts of the body. Of course, these signs appeared earlier in some men and later in others.

Factors such as how quickly the PSA is going up and the original Gleason score of the cancer can help predict how soon the cancer might show up in distant parts of the body and cause problems. If the PSA is going up very quickly, some doctors may recommend that you start treatment even before the cancer can be seen on tests or causes problems.

Observation might be a more appealing option to certain groups of men, such as those who are older and in whom the PSA level is rising slowly. Still, not all men might be comfortable with this approach.

Cancer that clearly has spread

If the cancer has spread outside the prostate gland, it will most likely go to nearby lymph nodes first, and then to the bones. Much less often the cancer will spread to the liver or other organs.

When prostate cancer has spread to other parts of the body (including the bones), hormone therapy is probably the most effective treatment. But it isn’t likely to cure the cancer, and at some point it might stop working. Usually the first treatment is a luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone (LHRH) analog or antagonist (or orchiectomy). If this stops working, an anti-androgen may be added. Other treatments aimed at bone metastases might be used as well.

Castrate-resistant and hormone-refractory prostate cancer

Hormone therapy is often very effective at shrinking or slowing the growth of prostate cancer that has spread, but it nearly always loses its effectiveness over time. Doctors use different terms to describe cancers that are no longer responding to hormones.

  • Castrate-resistant prostate cancer (CRPC) is cancer that is still growing despite the fact that hormone therapy (an orchiectomy, an LHRH agonist, or an LHRH antagonist) is keeping the testosterone in the body as low as what would be expected if the testicles were removed (called castrate levels). The cancer might still respond to other forms of hormone therapy, though.
  • Hormone-refractory prostate cancer (HRPC) is cancer that is no longer helped by any form of hormone therapy.

Men whose prostate cancer is still growing despite initial hormone therapy now have many more treatment options than they had even a few years ago.

If an anti-androgen drug was not part of the initial hormone therapy, it is often added at this time. If a man is already getting an anti-androgen but the cancer is still growing, stopping the anti-androgen (while continuing other hormone treatments) actually seems to help in some cases.

Other forms of hormone therapy may also be helpful for a while, especially if the cancer is causing few or no symptoms. These include abiraterone (Zytiga), enzalutamide (Xtandi), ketoconazole, estrogens (female hormones), and corticosteroids.

Another option for men whose cancer is causing few or no symptoms is the prostate cancer vaccine sipuleucel-T (Provenge). This may not lower PSA levels, but can help men live longer.

For cancers that are no longer responding to initial hormone therapy and are causing symptoms, several options might be available. Chemotherapy with the drug docetaxel (Taxotere) is often the first choice because it has been shown to help men live longer, as well as reduce pain. If docetaxel does not work or stops working, other chemo drugs, such as cabazitaxel (Jevtana), may help. Another option may be a different type of hormone therapy, such as abiraterone or enzalutamide (if they haven’t been tried yet).

Bisphosphonates or denosumab appear to help many men whose cancer has spread to the bones. These drugs can reduce pain and even slow cancer growth in many men. Other medicines and methods can also help keep pain and other symptoms under control. External radiation therapy can help treat bone pain if it is only in a few spots. Radiopharmaceutical drugs can often reduce pain if it is more widespread, and may also slow the growth of the cancer.

If you are having pain from prostate cancer, make sure your doctor and entire care team know about it. There are many very effective drugs that can relieve pain. For more information, see our document Advanced Cancer.

There are several promising new medicines now being tested against prostate cancer, including vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, and other new types of drugs. Because the ability to treat hormone-refractory prostate cancer is still not good enough, men are encouraged to explore new options by taking part in clinical trials.

Last Medical Review: 12/22/2014
Last Revised: 03/12/2015