The American Cancer Society says that nearly 250,000 American men are expected to be diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2021. And about 1 in 8 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point in their lives.

Prostate cancers tend to grow slowly and have a fairly good outlook compared to many types of cancer. From 2010 to 2016, the 5-year survival rate in the United States was 97.8 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Chemotherapy is a drug therapy that’s sometimes used to treat prostate cancer. It’s most commonly used to treat aggressive tumors or advanced prostate cancer that hasn’t responded well to other treatments.

In this article, we break down when your doctor may recommend chemotherapy for prostate cancer and what you can expect while taking chemotherapy drugs.

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that involves taking drugs that kill rapidly dividing cells. Chemicals in these drugs can kill cancer cells and healthy cells in your body that quickly divide such as bone marrow and hair cells.

According to the American Cancer Society, chemotherapy is not a standard treatment for early prostate cancer. It’s most likely to be used for aggressive cancer or cancer that has started growing outside the prostate.

Most men receiving chemotherapy for advanced prostate cancer will also receive androgen deprivation therapy (ADT) or anti-hormone therapy.

Chemotherapy may also be used to treat castrate-resistant prostate cancer (CRPC). CRPC is a type of prostate cancer that stops responding to hormone therapy. Prostate cancer needs male sex hormones to grow, and hormone therapy aims to lower male sex hormones to slow tumor growth.

A 2018 research review showed that docetaxel (developed in 2004) is the first chemotherapy drug that improved the survival rate of men with prostate cancer. Today, it’s the most commonly used chemotherapy drug to treat prostate cancer.

Taxanes

Docetaxel falls into a group of drugs called taxanes. These drugs block cellular processes cancer cells need to divide.

Docetaxel is often combined with the steroid prednisone. A 2016 research review showed that prednisone may help:

  • manage potential side effects
  • reduce cancer symptoms
  • improve overall quality of life

If docetaxel treatment doesn’t work best for your health needs, doctors often recommend trying cabazitaxel. Cabazitaxel falls into the same class of drugs as docetaxel.

Androgen receptor and biosynthesis inhibitors

The following treatments are newer treatment options that often work when hormone therapy doesn’t work for you:

  • enzalutamide
  • abiraterone
  • apalutamide

However, there are no studies available yet directly comparing these drugs, and it’s not clear which is most effective.

Enzalutamide and apalutamide are in a class of drugs called androgen receptor inhibitors. They block male sex hormones from binding to receptors on your prostate.

Abiraterone is in a class of drugs called androgen biosynthesis inhibitors. They work by blocking the production of testosterone.

Other chemotherapy drugs

Other chemotherapy drugs that may be used to treat prostate cancer include:

  • mitoxantrone
  • doxorubicin
  • vinblastine
  • paclitaxel
  • estramustine

Chemotherapy drugs are typically administered intravenously (through an IV) by a doctor who specializes in cancer treatment. The medications can be administered at a:

  • doctor’s office
  • chemotherapy clinic
  • hospital

Drugs are administered in cycles to help give your body time to recover. Cycles are often 2 to 3 weeks long, and each session takes roughly an hour, according to the American Cancer Society.

The schedule of your cycle depends on which drugs are being used. You may only be given chemotherapy drugs on the first day of your treatment or for several days in a row.

The total length of your treatment depends on how well the chemotherapy is working and your side effects.

Some types of chemotherapy drugs like enzalutamide can be given as oral pills.

Chemotherapy can cause your red and white blood cell counts to drop, so you’ll likely have a blood test before each of your sessions.

If you have a very low white blood cell count, your doctor may recommend lowering the dose or stopping treatment.

Chemicals in chemotherapy drugs kill cells that divide quickly, but they can’t differentiate between cancer cells and healthy cells in your body.

Many of chemotherapy’s side effects are due to drugs targeting healthy cells that divide rapidly such as cells in your:

  • bone marrow
  • mouth
  • intestines
  • hair follicles

Some common side effects of chemotherapy include:

Severity of symptoms can vary between people. Many of the side effects of chemotherapy go away shortly after treatment.

Docetaxel and cabazitaxel can cause neuropathy, or nerve dysfunction, that leads to the following feelings in your hands or feet:

  • numbness
  • burning
  • tingling

A 2014 research review showed that about 10 percent of participants have grade 3 or 4 neuropathies, which are the highest classifications of nerve dysfunction. Your chances of developing neuropathy depend on your dose.

According to the American Cancer Society, the drug mitoxantrone can cause leukemia in rare cases, and estramustine increases your risk of developing blood clots.

It’s important to discuss prostate cancer treatment options with your doctor. They can help you understand the pros and cons of chemotherapy and answer any specific questions you have about your treatment.

An oncologist, a doctor specializing in cancer, can help you develop strategies to lower your chances of developing side effects.

An oncologist can also put you in touch with support groups in your area. Many people find it helpful to talk with other people who have gone through the same treatment.

Support group resources

You can find online support groups or support groups in your area from these websites:

Healthline

Chemotherapy is most commonly used to treat prostate cancer that has spread beyond the prostate. Chemicals in chemotherapy drugs kill cancer cells and other cells in your body that rapidly divide such as cells in your hair follicles and digestive system.

Your doctor can help you determine if you may benefit from chemotherapy. You may also find it helpful to join a support group that connects you with other people who have undergone the same treatment in the past.