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Prostate Cancer Screening (PDQ®): Screening - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Evidence of Harms


Definitive external-beam radiation therapy can result in acute cystitis, proctitis, and sometimes enteritis. These are generally reversible but may be chronic. In the short-term, potency is preserved with irradiation in most cases but may diminish over time. A systematic review of evidence of complications of radiation therapy shows that 20% to 40% of men who had no erectile dysfunction before treatment developed dysfunction 12 to 24 months afterwards. Furthermore, 2% to 16% of men who had no urinary incontinence before treatment developed dysfunction 12 to 24 months afterward, and about 18% of men had some bowel dysfunction 1 year after treatment. The magnitude of effects of brachytherapy has not been determined, but the spectrum of complications are similar.[10] Radiation to the prostate has been reported to increase the risk of secondary malignancies, most notably of the rectum and bladder. While the relative risk in a large Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER)-based study was 1.26 (95% CI, 1.21-1.30), the absolute increase in risk is low. The same review of evidence found hormone therapy with luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone (LHRH) agonists reduces sexual function by 40% to 70%, and is associated with breast swelling in 5% to 25% of men. Hot flashes occur in 50% to 60% of men taking LHRH agonists.[8] (Refer to the PDQ summary on Prostate Cancer Treatment for more information.)

The question of whether prostate cancer treatment contributes to symptoms among screened prostate cancer survivors was addressed in an analysis from the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial. The randomized controlled PLCO analysis compared 529 prostate cancer survivors, 5 to 10 years postdiagnosis, with 514 noncancer controls, regarding prostate cancer-specific symptomatology. There was poorer sexual and urinary function among prostate cancer survivors compared with noncancer controls, suggesting that these symptoms are related to prostate cancer treatment and not aging or comorbidities.[11]

Screening has increased the incidence of prostate cancer. In the current medical climate, most early-stage prostate cancers are treated by radical surgery or irradiation with intent to eradicate the pathology. There is evidence that not all patients diagnosed with prostate cancer as a consequence of screening are in immediate need of curative treatment. Death from other causes often occurs before screen detected, localized, and well-differentiated malignancies affect the survival of these patients. To avoid overtreatment and consequent morbid events, active surveillance (AS) is an emerging strategy applicable in these kinds of cases wherein curative treatment is delayed pending objective medical evidence of disease progression.

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