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Surgery is a common choice to try to cure prostate cancer if it is not thought to have spread outside the prostate gland.

The main type of surgery for prostate cancer is a radical prostatectomy. In this operation, the surgeon removes the entire prostate gland plus some of the tissue around it, including the seminal vesicles. A radical prostatectomy can be done in different ways.

Open approaches to radical prostatectomy

In the more traditional approach to doing a prostatectomy, the surgeon operates through a single long skin incision to remove the prostate and nearby tissues. This type of surgery, sometimes referred to as an open approach, is now done less often than in the past.

There are 2 main ways to do this operation.

Radical retropubic prostatectomy

For this operation, the surgeon makes an incision (cut) in your lower abdomen, from the belly button down to the pubic bone. You will either be under general anesthesia (asleep) or be given spinal or epidural anesthesia (numbing the lower half of the body) along with sedation during the surgery.

If there is a reasonable chance the cancer might have spread to nearby lymph nodes (based on your PSA level, prostate biopsy results, and other factors), the surgeon may also remove some of these lymph nodes at this time (known as a lymph node biopsy). The nodes are usually sent to the lab to see if they have cancer cells (which can take a few days to get results), but in some cases the nodes may be looked at during the surgery. If this is done and cancer cells are found in any of the nodes, the surgeon might not continue with the surgery. This is because it’s unlikely that the cancer can be cured with surgery, and removing the prostate could lead to serious side effects.

After the surgery, while you are still under anesthesia, a catheter (thin, flexible tube) will be put in your penis to help drain your bladder. The catheter will usually stay in place for 1 to 2 weeks while you heal. You will be able to urinate on your own after the catheter is removed.

You will probably stay in the hospital for a few days after the surgery, and your activities will be limited for several weeks. The possible side effects of prostatectomy are described below.

Radical perineal prostatectomy

In this operation, the surgeon makes the incision in the skin between the anus and scrotum (the perineum), as shown in the picture above. This approach is used less often because it’s more likely to lead to erection problems and because the nearby lymph nodes can’t be removed. But it is often a shorter operation and might be an option if you aren’t concerned about erections and you don’t need lymph nodes removed. It also might be used if you have other medical conditions that make retropubic surgery difficult for you. It can be just as curative as the retropubic approach if done correctly. The perineal operation usually takes less time than the retropubic operation, and may result in less pain and an easier recovery afterward.

After the surgery, while you are still under anesthesia, a catheter will be put in your penis to help drain your bladder. The catheter usually stays in place for 1 to 2 weeks while you are healing. You will be able to urinate on your own after the catheter is removed.

You will probably stay in the hospital for a few days after the surgery, and your activities will be limited for several weeks. The possible side effects of prostatectomy are described below.

Laparoscopic approaches to radical prostatectomy

Laparoscopic approaches use several smaller incisions and special long surgical tools to remove the prostate. The surgeon either holds the tools directly, or uses a control panel to precisely move robotic arms that hold the tools. This approach to prostatectomy has become more common in recent years.

If you are thinking about treatment with laparoscopic surgery, it’s important to understand what is known and what is not yet known about this approach. The most important factors are likely to be the skill and experience of your surgeon. If you decide that laparoscopic surgery is the right treatment for you, be sure to find a surgeon with a lot of experience.

Laparoscopic radical prostatectomy

For a laparoscopic radical prostatectomy (LRP), the surgeon inserts special long instruments through several small incisions to remove the prostate. One of the instruments has a small video camera on the end, which lets the surgeon see inside the abdomen.

Laparoscopic prostatectomy has some advantages over open radical prostatectomy, including less blood loss and pain, shorter hospital stays (usually no more than a day), and faster recovery times (although the catheter will need to remain in the bladder for about the same amount of time).

In experienced hands, LRP appears to be as good as open radical prostatectomy, although we do not yet have long-term results from procedures done in the United States.

The rates of major side effects from LRP, such as erection problems and trouble holding urine (incontinence) seem to be about the same as for open prostatectomy. (These side effects are described below.) Recovery of bladder control may be delayed slightly with this approach.

Robotic-assisted laparoscopic radical prostatectomy

In this approach, also known as robotic prostatectomy, the laparoscopic surgery is done using a robotic interface (called the da Vinci system). The surgeon sits at a control panel in the operating room and moves robotic arms to operate through several small incisions in the patient’s abdomen.

Robotic prostatectomy has advantages over the open approach in terms of less pain, blood loss, and recovery time. But in terms of the side effects men are most concerned about, such as urinary or erection problems (described below), there doesn’t seem to be a difference between robotic prostatectomy and other approaches.

For the surgeon, the robotic system may provide more maneuverability and more precision when moving the instruments than standard LRP. Still, the most important factor in the success of either type of laparoscopic surgery is the surgeon’s experience and skill.

Risks and side effects of any type of radical prostatectomy

There are possible risks and side effects with any type of surgery for prostate cancer.

Risks of prostate surgery

The risks with any type of radical prostatectomy are much like those with any major surgery. Problems during or shortly after the operation can include:

  • Reactions to anesthesia
  • Bleeding from the surgery
  • Blood clots in the legs or lungs
  • Damage to nearby organs
  • Infections at the surgery site.

Rarely, part of the intestine might be injured during surgery, which could lead to infections in the abdomen and might require more surgery to correct. Injuries to the intestines are more common with laparoscopic and robotic surgeries than with the open approach.

If lymph nodes are removed, a collection of lymph fluid (called a lymphocele) can form and may need to be drained.

In extremely rare cases, people die because of complications of this operation. Your risk depends, in part, on your overall health, your age, and the skill of your surgical team.

Side effects of prostate surgery

The major possible side effects of radical prostatectomy are urinary incontinence (being unable to control urine) and erectile dysfunction (impotence; problems getting or keeping erections). These side effects can also occur with other forms of prostate cancer treatment.

Urinary incontinence: You may not be able to control your urine or have leakage or dribbling. There are different levels of incontinence. Being incontinent can affect you not only physically but emotionally and socially as well. There are 3 major types of incontinence:

  • Men with stress incontinence might leak urine when they cough, laugh, sneeze, or exercise. Stress incontinence is the most common type after prostate surgery. It is usually caused by problems with the valve that keeps urine in the bladder (the bladder sphincter). Prostate cancer treatments can damage the muscles that form this valve or the nerves that keep the muscles working.
  • Men with overflow incontinence have trouble emptying their bladder. They take a long time to urinate and have a dribbling stream with little force. Overflow incontinence is usually caused by blockage or narrowing of the bladder outlet by scar tissue.
  • Men with urge incontinence have a sudden need to urinate. This problem occurs when the bladder becomes too sensitive to stretching as it fills with urine.

Rarely after surgery, men lose all ability to control their urine. This is called continuous incontinence.

After surgery for prostate cancer, normal bladder control usually returns within several weeks or months. This recovery usually occurs gradually, in stages.

Doctors can’t predict for sure how any man will be affected after surgery. In general, older men tend to have more incontinence problems than younger men. Large cancer centers, where prostate surgery is done often and surgeons have a lot of experience, generally report fewer problems with incontinence.

Incontinence can be treated. Even if your incontinence can’t be corrected completely, it can still be helped. To learn about managing and living with incontinence, see Managing Incontinence for Men With Cancer.

Erectile dysfunction (impotence): This means you can’t get an erection sufficient for sexual penetration.

Erections are controlled by 2 tiny bundles of nerves that run on either side of the prostate. If you can have erections before surgery, the surgeon will try not to injure these nerves during the prostatectomy. This is known as a nerve-sparing approach. But if the cancer is growing into or very close to the nerves, the surgeon will need to remove them.

If both nerves are removed, you won’t be able to have spontaneous erections, but you might still be able to have erections using some of the aids described below. If the nerves on only one side are removed, you might still have erections, but the chance is lower than if neither were removed. If neither nerve bundle is removed you might have normal erections at some point after surgery.

Your ability to have an erection after surgery depends on your age, your ability to get an erection before the operation, and whether the nerves were cut. All men can expect some decrease in the ability to have an erection, but the younger you are, the more likely it is that you will keep this ability.

Surgeons who do many radical prostatectomies tend to report lower impotence rates than doctors who do the surgery less often. A wide range of impotency rates have been reported in the medical literature, but each man’s situation is different, so the best way to get an idea of your chances for recovering erections is to ask your doctor about his or her success rates and what the outcome is likely to be in your case.

If your ability to have erections does return after surgery, it often occurs slowly. In fact, it can take from a few months up to 2 years. During the first few months, you will probably not be able to have a spontaneous erection, so you may need to use medicines or other treatments.

Most doctors feel that regaining potency is helped along by trying to get an erection as soon as possible once the body has had a chance to heal (usually several weeks after the operation). Some doctors call this penile rehabilitation. Medicines (see below) may be helpful at this time. Be sure to talk to your doctor about your situation.

There are several options for treating erectile dysfunction:

  • Phosphodiesterase-5 (PDE5) inhibitors such as sildenafil (Viagra), vardenafil (Levitra), and tadalafil (Cialis) are pills that can help with erections. These drugs won’t work if both nerves that control erections have been damaged or removed. Common side effects of these drugs are headache, flushing (skin becomes red and feels warm), upset stomach, light sensitivity, and runny or stuffy nose. Rarely, these drugs can cause vision problems, possibly even blindness. Some other drugs such as nitrates, which are drugs used to treat heart disease, can cause problems if you are taking a PDE5 inhibitor, so be sure your doctor knows what medicines you take.
  • Alprostadil is a man-made version of prostaglandin E1, a substance naturally made in the body that can produce erections. It can be injected almost painlessly into the base of the penis 5 to 10 minutes before intercourse or placed into the tip of the penis as a suppository. You can even increase the dosage to prolong the erection. You might have side effects, such as pain, dizziness, and prolonged erection, but they are not usually serious.
  • Vacuum devices are another option to create an erection. These mechanical pumps are placed over the penis. The air is sucked out of the pump, which draws blood into the penis to produce an erection. The erection is maintained after the pump is removed by a strong rubber band placed at the base of the penis. The band is removed after sex.
  • Penile implants might restore your ability to have erections if other methods don’t help. An operation is needed to put them inside the penis. There are several types of penile implants, including those using silicone rods or inflatable devices.

For more on coping with erection problems and other sexuality issues, see Sexuality for the Man With Cancer.

Changes in orgasm: After surgery, the sensation of orgasm should still be pleasurable, but there is no ejaculation of semen – the orgasm is “dry.” This is because the glands that made most of the fluid for semen (the seminal vesicles and prostate) were removed during the prostatectomy, and the pathways used by sperm (the vas deferens) were cut. In some men, orgasm becomes less intense or goes away completely. Less often, men report pain with orgasm.

Loss of fertility: Radical prostatectomy cuts the vas deferens, which are the pathways between the testicles (where sperm are made) and the urethra (through which sperm leave the body). Your testicles will still make sperm, but they can’t leave the body as a part of the ejaculate. This means that a man can no longer father a child the natural way. Often, this is not an issue, as men with prostate cancer tend to be older. But if it is a concern for you, you might want to ask your doctor about “banking” your sperm before the operation. To learn more, see Fertility and Men With Cancer.

Lymphedema: This is a rare but possible complication of removing many of the lymph nodes around the prostate. Lymph nodes normally provide a way for fluid to return to the heart from all areas of the body. When nodes are removed, fluid can collect in the legs or genital region over time, causing swelling and pain. Lymphedema can usually be treated with physical therapy, although it may not go away completely. To learn more, see Understanding Lymphedema: For Cancers Other Than Breast Cancer.

Change in penis length: A possible effect of surgery is a small decrease in penis length. This is probably due to a shortening of the urethra when a portion of it is removed along with the prostate.

Inguinal hernia: A prostatectomy increases a man’s chances of developing an inguinal (groin) hernia in the future.

Transurethral resection of the prostate (TURP)

This operation is more often used to treat men with non-cancerous enlargement of the prostate called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). But it is also sometimes used in men with advanced prostate cancer to help relieve symptoms, such as urination problems. (It is not used to try to cure the cancer.)

During this operation, the surgeon removes the inner part of the prostate gland that surrounds the urethra (the tube through which urine exits the bladder). The skin is not cut with this surgery. An instrument called a resectoscope is passed through the tip of the penis into the urethra to the level of the prostate. Once it is in place, either electricity is passed through a wire to heat it or a laser is used to cut or vaporize the tissue. Spinal anesthesia (which numbs the lower half of your body) or general anesthesia (where you are asleep) is used.

The operation usually takes about an hour. After surgery, a catheter (thin, flexible tube) is inserted through the penis and into the bladder. It remains in place for about a day to help urine drain while the prostate heals. You can usually leave the hospital after 1 to 2 days and return to normal activities in 1 to 2 weeks.

You will probably have some blood in your urine after surgery. Other possible side effects from TURP include infection and any risks that come with the type of anesthesia used.


Last Medical Review: 02/16/2016
Last Revised: 03/11/2016