Prostate Cancer and Radiation Side Effects

At early stage, the treatment of prostate cancer can provide better outcome. But since mostly it progresses slowly, this cancer is usually not immediately treated. The treatments such as radiation therapy may lead to the risk of significant side effects. Therefore, many sufferers tend to delay taking the treatment until there is a risk the disease might start to spread.

‘Watchful waiting’  for prostate cancer

It the disease is at early stage and progresses slowly (typically it doesn’t cause the symptoms yet), watchful waiting is usually recommended by your doctor. The term ‘waiting’ doesn’t mean you can ignore the disease, you may not need to take the treatment immediately but the disease is carefully monitoring.

Watchful waiting is commonly recommended for older men, a period of when the prostate cancer is unlikely to affect the natural life span of patient. In fact, many older men with this cancer die due to other health conditions.

But if there is a risk for the disease to progress aggressively and spread to other areas (such as bones), medical intervention is immediately necessary.

The treatment is usually also suggested if the disease is diagnosed at young ages. The good news, prostate cancer can be cured in some cases if treated at early stages, as noted before.

Radiation therapy (radiotherapy or radiation oncology), what actually is it?

As the name suggests, this is a kind of treatment that use controlled-radiation to help kill and destroy the cancerous cells.

The radiation may cause damage to normal cells. But this is something you should not worry because normal cells have their own mechanism to repair themselves.

However, the new methods are continuously going to be better to protect healthy cells and work with more accurately target. So in general, the goal of this treatment is to use the radiation effectively in order to help destroy cells of cancer with low impact on healthy tissue.

image_illustration263There are two major options of how you take radiotherapy, these include:

  1. The radiation is delivered externally. In this method, your specialist will use a special device to radiate x-rays and hit the cancerous cells externally.
  2. Internal radiotherapy. With this option, a radioactive source will be inserted into a specific site of the body to radiate high energy rays and destroy the cancerous cells more powerfully.

Which one you should take is dependent on the size and severity level of the cancer. Doctor may suggest to use one or combination of methods.

For prostate cancer, it can be treated with radiotherapy alone. Though again, sometime other treatment approaches are required if the disease gets worse, this can vary from patient to patient.

Like most things in cancer treatment, there are several potential side effects, too. These are divided into two major groups, short term and long term side effects.

Short term side effects of radiation therapy for prostate cancer

External radiotherapy could lead to some short term side effects, such as diarrhea, skin changes in the genital area (sore skin), inflammation of bladder, and hair loss. Internal radiation therapy leads to similar side effects.

Diarrhea

It is a common condition. Typically, it is characterized by increased frequency for bowel movement. Many times, it can be triggered by stress and dietary factors (such as when you increase your dietary fiber significantly at one time when your body is not ready or if you get used with diet low in fiber before). It can be caused by bacterial infection, too.

But diarrhea is also a common symptom after taking external radiotherapy. It occurs when the radiation cause irritation to the lining of the bowel.

To cope with this symptom, some medicines are available to slow down your bowel. Typically, in the few days or weeks following the treatment, this symptom improves.

Sore skin around the treatment areas (such as around genital area)

Several years ago, this symptom is a common short effect. But today, it is relatively less common since the method in the radiation therapy continuously improves for better result and with low side effect.

However, there is always a chance for you to experience this sore because the skin between your legs is so smooth. If you do have this symptom, tell your radiographer /doctor! Medications such as creams can help ease and improve the problem.

Inflammation of bladder

This inflammation is medically called as radiation cystitis. It is usually characterized by frequent urination that may come with pain (a burning feeling). It occurs when the radiation hurts the lining of the bladder.

Unfortunately, it tends to get worse along with the course of the treatment. But typically, it will improve within a few weeks or days of finishing the treatment.

The best option to cope with the problem is by drinking plenty of water a day. You may find some drinks (such as tea or coffee) can worsen the problem. It is commonly suggested to avoid potassium citrate, too. For more advice, discus with your radiographer /doctor!

Hair loss

Since there is a chance for radiation to affect healthy cells, too – the treatment can cause hair loss, especially for hair follicles around the treatment area. The problem can be complete hair loss or patchy.

The good news, the damage is not permanent. Mostly, the hair will grow back in several months after the treatment, though sometime they may not regrow completely.

What else?

As mentioned before, internal radiotherapy could lead to the same side effects of what external radiotherapy does. But sometime, it may cause constipation or even the presence of blood in the semen or urine (very rare).

How about long term side effects?