- How is prostate cancer treated?
- Expectant management (watchful waiting) and active surveillance for prostate cancer
- Surgery for prostate cancer
- Radiation therapy for prostate cancer
- Cryosurgery for prostate cancer
- Hormone (androgen deprivation) therapy for prostate cancer
- Chemotherapy for prostate cancer
- Vaccine treatment for prostate cancer
- Preventing and treating prostate cancer spread to bone
- Clinical trials for prostate cancer
- Complementary and alternative therapies for prostate cancer
- Considering prostate cancer treatment options
- Initial treatment of prostate cancer by stage
- Following PSA levels during and after treatment
- Prostate cancer that remains or recurs after treatment
- More prostate cancer treatment information
Expectant management (watchful waiting) and active surveillance for prostate cancer
Because prostate cancer often grows very slowly, some men (especially those who are older or have other serious health problems) may never need treatment for their prostate cancer. Instead, their doctors may recommend approaches known as expectant management, watchful waiting, or active surveillance.
Some doctors use these terms to mean the same thing. For other doctors the terms active surveillance and watchful waiting mean something slightly different:
Active surveillance is often used to mean monitoring the cancer closely with prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood tests, digital rectal exams (DREs), and ultrasounds at regular intervals to see if the cancer is growing. Prostate biopsies may be done as well to see if the cancer is becoming more aggressive. If there is a change in your test results, your doctor would then talk to you about treatment options.
Watchful waiting is sometimes used to describe a less intensive type of follow-up that may mean fewer tests and relying more on changes in a man's symptoms to decide if treatment is needed.
Not all doctors agree with these definitions or use them exactly this way. In fact, some doctors prefer to no longer use the term watchful waiting. They feel it implies that nothing is being done, when in fact a man is still being closely monitored. No matter which term your doctor may use, it is very important to understand exactly what he or she means when they refer to it.
An approach such as this may be recommended if your cancer is not causing any symptoms, is expected to grow slowly, and is small and contained within the prostate. This type of approach is not likely to be a good option if you are young, healthy, and/or have a fast-growing cancer (for example, a high Gleason score).
Active surveillance is a reasonable option for some men with slow-growing cancers because it is not known whether treating the cancer with surgery or radiation will actually help them live longer. These treatments have definite risks and side effects that may outweigh the possible benefits for some men. Some men are not comfortable with this approach, and are willing to accept the possible side effects of active treatments in order to try to remove or destroy the cancer.
With active surveillance, your cancer will be carefully monitored. Usually this approach includes a doctor visit with a PSA blood test and DRE about every 3 to 6 months. Transrectal ultrasound-guided prostate biopsies may be done every year as well.
Treatment can be started if the cancer seems to be growing or getting worse, based on a rising PSA level or a change in the DRE, ultrasound findings, or biopsy results. On biopsies, an increase in the Gleason score or extent of tumor (based on the number of biopsy samples containing tumor) are both signals to start treatment (usually surgery or radiation therapy).
Active surveillance allows the patient to be observed for a time, only treating those men who have a serious form of the cancer. This lets men with a less serious cancer avoid the side effects of a treatment that might not have helped them live longer. A possible downside of this approach is that there's a chance it could allow the cancer to spread. This could limit your treatment options, and could possibly affect the chance to cure the cancer.
Not all experts agree how often testing should occur during active surveillance. There is also debate about when is the best time to start treatment if things change. Still, several early studies have shown that men who are good candidates for active surveillance and later go on to be treated tend to do just as well as those who decide to start treatment right away. Hopefully we will have a better idea of the pros and cons of active surveillance versus immediate treatment in the near future as more study results become available.
Last Medical Review: 02/27/2012
Last Revised: 05/15/2013