Prostate Cancer Complications

Written by Jacquelyn Cafasso | Published on August 25, 2015
Medically Reviewed by The Healthline Medical Review Team on August 25, 2015

What Is Prostate Cancer?

The prostate gland is a chestnut-sized endocrine organ in males. It produces the fluid that nourishes and transports sperm. Cancer of the prostate gland occurs when cells within the prostate become abnormal and multiply. The accumulation of these cells then forms a tumor.

Several treatments for prostate cancer are available. Some are very successful at eliminating the disease. In fact, most men diagnosed with prostate cancer don’t die from it. However, sometimes the tumor or treatments such as surgery or radiation can lead to other unwanted side effects. These complications may further decrease a man’s quality of life as he deals with his prostate cancer.

Erectile Dysfunction

The nerves that control a man’s erection response are located very close to the prostate gland. A tumor on the prostate gland or certain treatments, such as surgery and radiation, can damage these delicate nerves and cause problems with achieving or maintaining an erection.

Fortunately, there are effective drugs available for erectile dysfunction. Oral medications include:

  • sildenafil (Viagra)
  • tadalafil (Cialis)
  • vardenafil (Levitra)

A vacuum constriction device, also called a vacuum pump, can help men who don’t want to take a drug. The device mechanically creates an erection by forcing blood into the penis with a vacuum seal.

Incontinence

Prostatic tumors and surgical treatments for prostate cancer also can lead to urinary incontinence. Someone with urinary incontinence loses control of their bladder and may leak urine or not be able to control when they urinate. The primary cause of this is damage to the nerves and the muscles that control urinary function.

A man with prostate cancer may need to use absorbent pads (diapers) in order to catch leaking urine. Medications to help with the irritation of the bladder are available. In more severe cases, an injection of a protein called collagen into the urethra can help tighten the pathway and prevent leaking.

Metastasis

Metastasis occurs when tumor cells from one body region spread to other parts of the body. The cancer can spread through tissue and the lymph system as well as through the blood. Prostate cancer cells can move to other organs, like the bladder. They can travel even further and affect other parts of the body, such as the bones and spinal cord.

Most commonly, prostate cancer that metastasizes spreads to the bones. Prostate cancer that travels to the bones can lead to the following complications:

  • severe pain
  • fractures or broken bones
  • stiffness in the hip, thighs, or back
  • weakness in arms and legs
  • higher-than-normal levels of calcium in the blood (hypercalcemia), possibly leading to nausea, vomiting, and confusion
  • compression of the spinal cord, possibly leading to muscle weakness and urinary and bowel incontinence

These complications may be treated with drugs called bisphosphonates, or an injectable medication called denosumab (Xgeva).

Long-Term Outlook

Prostate cancer is the second most common type of cancer in men after non-melanoma cancer of the skin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Deaths due to prostate cancer have declined dramatically. They continue to drop as new treatments become available. This may be due to the development of diagnostic tests for prostate cancer in the 1980s.

Men with prostate cancer have a good chance of living for a long time even after their diagnosis. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year relative survival rate for prostate cancer that hasn’t spread is close to 100 percent. The 10-year survival rate is close to 99 percent and the 15-year survival rate is 94 percent.

The majority of prostate cancers are slow growing and harmless. This has led some men to consider using a strategy called active surveillance. This strategy is sometimes called “watchful waiting.”

The prostate cancer is carefully monitored for signs of growth and progression using blood tests and other exams. This is done as an effort to avoid the urinary and erectile complications associated with certain treatments. A 2013 study published in Cancer Research concludes that people diagnosed with low-risk cancers may want to consider receiving treatment only when the disease looks like it may spread.

Read Healthline’s guide to prostate cancer treatments to learn about your options. 

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