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This topic is about prostate cancer that has spread or come back after treatment. For information on prostate cancer that has not spread outside the prostate (localized prostate cancer), see the topic Prostate Cancer.
What is prostate cancer?
Prostate cancer is a group of cells that grows faster than normal in a man's prostate gland. It can spread into other areas and kill normal tissue.
The prostate gland sits just below a man's bladder. It makes part of the fluid for semen. In young men, the prostate is about the size of a walnut. It usually grows larger as you grow older.
The cancer may be one of these types:
- Locally advanced prostate cancer. This is cancer that has grown through the outer rim of the prostate and into nearby tissue.
- Metastatic prostate cancer. This is cancer that has spread, or metastasized, to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
- Recurrent prostate cancer. This is cancer that has come back after it was treated. The cancer can come back in the prostate, near the prostate, or in another part of the body. If it comes back in another part of the body—often the bones—it is still called prostate cancer, because it started in the prostate.
What causes prostate cancer?
Experts don't know what causes prostate cancer. But they believe that getting older and having a family history of prostate cancer raise your chance of getting it.
What are the symptoms?
Sometimes there are no symptoms of either locally advanced or metastatic prostate cancer.
When they do appear, symptoms of locally advanced prostate cancer include:
- Waking up many times during the night to urinate.
- Having trouble starting your urine stream, having a weaker-than-normal stream, or not being able to urinate at all.
- Having pain or a burning feeling when you urinate.
- Having blood in your urine.
- Having a deep pain or stiffness in your lower back, upper thighs, or hips.
Symptoms of metastatic prostate cancer may include:
- Bone pain.
- Weight loss.
- Swelling in your legs and feet.
How is prostate cancer diagnosed?
A blood test called a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test is the most common way to check for prostate cancer. A higher level of PSA may mean that you have prostate cancer or that your prostate cancer has come back.
Your doctor also may do a biopsy. In this test, your doctor takes samples of tissue from your prostate gland or from the area where the cancer may have spread and sends the samples to a lab for testing. A biopsy is the only way to know for sure that you have prostate cancer.
If you have had prostate cancer before, your doctor may also order a bone scan, CT scan, or MRI to see if it has come back or spread.
Learning that you have cancer that has spread or come back can be very hard. Some people find that it helps to talk about their feelings with their family and friends. You may also want to talk with your doctor or with other people who have had this kind of cancer. Your local Canadian Cancer Society chapter can help you find a support group.
How is it treated?
Your treatment choices depend on your overall health, how fast the cancer is growing, and how far it has spread.
Locally advanced prostate cancer may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, or a combination of these.
Treatment of metastatic cancer focuses on slowing the spread of the cancer and relieving symptoms, such as bone pain. It also can help you feel better and live longer. Treatment may include hormone therapy, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or immunotherapy.
Men over age 80 or those with other serious health problems may decide not to have treatment except for what is needed to treat any symptoms (watchful waiting).
The exact cause of prostate cancer is not known, but experts believe your age and family history may have something to do with your chances of getting the disease. Prostate cancer is very common and is an older man's disease. Most men who get it are older than 65.
Prostate cancer may not cause noticeable symptoms. Possible symptoms of locally advanced prostate cancer are:
- Urinary problems, such as:
- Not being able to urinate at all.
- Having a hard time starting or stopping the flow of urine.
- Having to urinate often, especially at night.
- Having pain or burning during urination.
- Difficulty having an erection.
- Blood in your urine or semen.
- Deep and frequent pain in your lower back, belly, hip, or pelvis.
These symptoms also may be caused by:
- Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), which is an enlarged prostate. This is very common in older men. The prostate usually grows larger with age. When it gets large enough, it can press against the urethra and cause urination problems.
- Prostatitis, an infection in the prostate.
- Urinary tract infection, an infection in any of the organs and tubes that process and carry urine out of the body.
Symptoms that may mean the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, or metastasized, include:
- Weight loss.
- Bone pain.
- Swelling in the legs and feet.
Prostate cancer is a common cancer affecting older men. About 21,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer in Canada every year.footnote 1 In the United States, about 12 out of 100 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer sometime during their lifetime. But most men who are diagnosed with prostate cancer don't die from prostate cancer.
When prostate cancer grows large enough, it begins to fill the prostate and often can be felt by your doctor during a digital rectal examination. As it continues to grow, it breaks through the outer rim of the prostate and into nearby tissues, such as the seminal vesicles. At this point, the disease is called locally advanced prostate cancer.
Locally advanced prostate cancer is usually not curable. But there are treatments that can help you live longer and feel better.
After the cancer has broken through the prostate, it may move into nearby lymph nodes. From the lymph node system, the cancer can spread to other areas of the body. Most often, prostate cancer spreads to the bones. It also may spread to the lungs or other organs. When it has spread to the lymph nodes, the disease is called metastatic prostate cancer.
Metastatic prostate cancer is not curable. But a number of treatments are available that may help you live longer and make you feel better.
What Increases Your Risk
A risk is anything that makes you more likely to get a particular disease. Being older than 50 is the main risk for prostate cancer. About 6 out of 10 new prostate cancers are diagnosed in men who are 65 and older.footnote 2
Your chances of getting the disease are higher if other men in your family have had it. Your risk is doubled if your father or brother developed prostate cancer. Your risk also depends on the age at which your relative was diagnosed. Most men who get prostate cancer have no family history of the disease.
Race and prostate cancer
Men of African descent have a greater chance of developing the kind of prostate cancer that grows and spreads. Researchers are not sure why there is a difference in disease and death rates among different races. Some experts think there may be a genetic link.footnote 3
When To Call
Be sure to follow your doctor's instructions about calling when you have problems, new symptoms, or symptoms that get worse.
Call your doctor now if you:
- Are completely unable to urinate.
- Have painful urination and a fever, chills, or body aches.
- Have blood or pus in your urine or semen.
Call your doctor to schedule an appointment if you have unexplained:
- Weight loss.
- Dull, aching pain in your lower back, pelvis, or hips.
- Swollen lymph nodes in the groin area. These nodes are usually not tender.
Watchful waiting is a wait-and-see approach. If you are older and have other serious health problems, you may choose only those treatments that keep you comfortable (palliative care).
Examinations and Tests
Locally advanced and metastatic prostate cancer are diagnosed through physical examinations and tests, including:
- A digital rectal examination, in which the doctor inserts a gloved finger into your rectum to feel your prostate gland. Some prostate tumours can be found this way.
- A PSA test to measure the levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in your blood. A higher level of PSA may indicate an enlargement, infection, or cancer of the prostate. A rising PSA level after treatment for prostate cancer can mean your cancer has come back.
- An MRI called a multiparametric MRI (mpMRI). It shows a picture of the prostate along with other important information, such as the size of the prostate, blood flow, and what the prostate tissue looks like.
- A tumour marker (biomarker) test, such as 4Kscore, the Mi-Prostate Score (MiPS), or the Prostate Health Index (PHI). These tests look for signs of cancer in a sample of blood or urine.
- A transrectal ultrasound, in which the doctor inserts a probe into your rectum to check your prostate. The probe uses sound waves (ultrasound) to create a picture of the prostate.
- A prostate biopsy, in which tissue is taken from your prostate and examined under a microscope. The other examinations and tests can give clues that you may have prostate cancer, but only a prostate biopsy can tell for sure.
If you have had prostate cancer before, one or more tests will help your doctor see if your cancer has come back or spread. These may include:
- Blood tests. Different types of blood tests are used to see whether cancer has spread to your bones or liver.
- A bone scan. Radioactive material that shows up on X-rays is injected into your arm. An X-ray camera passes over your body, taking pictures as the radioactive material moves into your bones. Areas of bone damage show up in the pictures. Prostate cancer that has spread to the bones can cause this kind of damage.
- A CT scan. A CT scanner directs a series of X-ray pulses through your body. Each X-ray pulse lasts only a fraction of a second and represents a "slice" of the organ or area being studied.
- An MRI. An MRI uses a strong magnetic field to make pictures of the prostate. This can show tissue damage or disease, such as infection or a tumour.
If you have been treated for prostate cancer in the past, you've probably been having regular checkups that include PSA tests to check for any signs that the cancer has come back or has spread to other parts of your body. Your doctor will watch for any increases in your PSA level and the speed with which any increases occur. A higher PSA does not necessarily mean your cancer has come back. But it may mean that you need further tests, such as a prostate biopsy, bone scan, CT scan, or MRI.
Your treatment options for prostate cancer that has spread will depend on:
- What kind of cancer cells you have. This is called the grade or Gleason score of your cancer. Some prostate cancer cells grow more quickly than others.
- Your age.
- Any serious health problems you might have, including urinary, bowel, or sexual function problems.
- Your PSA level.
Treatment for locally advanced or metastatic prostate cancer may include hormone therapy, surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or immunotherapy.
You may want to talk with your doctor about entering a clinical trial of new cancer treatment options.
Treatment for locally advanced prostate cancer
Prostate cancer that has spread to tissue around the prostate may be treated with radiation therapy, surgery, or hormone therapy. Sometimes two of these treatments are combined.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays or protons to destroy the cancer. This treatment has improved with newer technologies, so there are fewer side effects and complications than in the past. Radiation therapy usually is combined with hormone therapy.
External beam radiotherapy, or EBRT, uses high-energy rays, such as X-rays, to destroy the cancer. It is usually given in multiple doses over several weeks. Radiation destroys tissue, so it may damage the nerves along the side of the prostate that affect your ability to have an erection. If you already have bowel problems, external radiation may cause your symptoms to get worse.
Two common forms of external radiation are:
- Conformal radiotherapy (3D-CRT). This uses a three-dimensional planning system to target a strong dose of radiation to the prostate cancer. This helps to protect healthy tissue from radiation.
- Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). This uses newer 3D-CRT technology to target the cancer.
The two most common surgeries are:
- Radical prostatectomy. This operation takes out your prostate gland and the cancer in and around it.
- Transurethral resection of the prostate (TURP). This surgery can help relieve bladder problems, because it removes part of the tumour that may be blocking the urethra, the tube that carries urine from your bladder through your penis. The procedure is done under general anesthesia. This can keep the tumour from growing for a while. But TURP does not take out the whole tumour.
In some cases, men will have radiation therapy after a prostatectomy, especially if the tumour could not be completely removed by surgery.
Hormone therapy is also called androgen deprivation therapy (ADT). Prostate cancer needs male hormones (testosterone) in order to survive. Hormone therapy decreases the amount of testosterone and other male hormones in your body. This often causes tumours to shrink.
Hormone therapy usually works well at first to stop cancer growth. But in most cases, the cancer begins to grow again within a few years. At this point, the cancer is described as hormone-resistant, meaning it is not responding to standard hormone therapy. When this happens, other kinds of hormone treatments may be tried.
When hormone treatments no longer keep the cancer from growing, the cancer is called castration-resistant prostate cancer (CRPC). Treatments that may be used to help men live longer include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and medicines like enzalutamide.
Sometimes after surgery or radiation therapy to treat prostate cancer, a man's PSA will start rising even though he has no symptoms and there are no signs that the cancer has spread to another part of his body (metastasized). This is called non-metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer (nmCRPC). Men with nmCRPC who are already on hormone therapy may also be treated with medicines such as apalutamide, enzalutamide, or abiraterone with prednisone.
Some men choose to start hormone therapy only after they have symptoms. But many doctors recommend starting hormone therapy right away if cancer is found in the lymph nodes during surgery to remove the prostate. Early treatment may allow men to live a little longer. Other doctors say to wait, because waiting delays the bothersome and serious side effects of hormone therapy.
Treatment for metastatic prostate cancer
Treatment for prostate cancer that has spread to the bones and/or other organs in the body is aimed at relieving symptoms and slowing the cancer's growth. Treatment may include:
Treatment for pain
Pain is one of the main concerns of people who have metastatic cancer. But cancer pain can almost always be controlled. You and your doctor have several options to help your pain, including pain-relieving medicines and radiation, such as external beam radiation therapy and bone-targeted radioisotopes.
You can find more information about treating prostate cancer online at the:
- Canadian Cancer Society website at www.cancer.ca.
- U.S. National Cancer Institute website at www.cancer.gov.
Hospice palliative care
Hospice palliative care is a kind of medical care for people who have serious and chronic illnesses. It is different from trying to cure your illness. Hospice palliative care focuses on improving your quality of life—not just in your body but also in your mind and spirit. Some people combine hospice palliative care with curative care.
With prostate cancer, hospice palliative care may involve treatments to reduce tumours or bone pain, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, radionuclides (medicine used in external radiation) for bone metastasis, and bisphosphonates, which slow the breakdown of bone and help relieve bone pain. Surgery to relieve bladder problems (transurethral resection of the prostate, or TURP) is also an option.
For some people who have advanced cancer, a time comes when treatment to cure cancer no longer seems like a good choice. This can be because the side effects, time, and costs of treatment are greater than the promise of cure or relief. But this isn't the end of treatment. Hospice palliative care providers will work to help manage pain and other symptoms or side effects. They may help you decide what treatment you want or don't want. And they can help your loved ones understand how to support you.
If you are interested in hospice palliative care, talk to your doctor. He or she may be able to manage your care or refer you to a doctor who specializes in this type of care.
For more information, see the topic Hospice Palliative Care.
You may wish to discuss health care and other legal issues that arise near the end of life with your family and your doctor. You may find it helpful and comforting to state your health care choices in writing—with an advance care plan—while you are still able to make and communicate these decisions.
You may want to choose a substitute decision-maker to make and carry out decisions about your care if you should become unable to speak for yourself. Be sure to share your wishes with your family or close friends. If you have not made an advance care plan, talk to your doctor. He or she can help you get the right forms for your province or territory. You may also find these forms in a doctor's office, hospital, or your local health unit.
For more information, see the topic Care at the End of Life.
Prostate cancer can't be prevented. But there are steps you can take to reduce your risk for this disease. For more information, see the topic Prostate Cancer.
During medical care for any stage of prostate cancer, there are things you can do at home to help manage symptoms of prostate cancer or side effects of treatment:
- Nausea or vomiting. After vomiting has stopped for 1 hour, sip a rehydration drink to restore lost fluids and nutrients. Watch for and treat early signs of dehydration. Older adults can quickly become dehydrated from vomiting. Your doctor may also prescribe medicines to control nausea and vomiting. For more information on how to deal with these side effects, see:
- Pain. For pain, talk to your doctor about using aspirin, acetaminophen (such as Tylenol), or another type of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Or ask about an opioid medicine. You can also try an alternative therapy such as biofeedback. Be sure to discuss with your doctor any home treatment you use for pain.
- Diarrhea. Don't eat until you are feeling better. Take frequent, small sips of water or a rehydration drink and small bites of salty crackers. Begin eating mild foods (such as rice, dry toast or crackers, bananas, broth, and applesauce) the next day or sooner, depending on how you feel.
- Constipation. Make sure you drink enough fluids. Most adults should drink between 8 and 10 glasses of water or non-caffeinated beverages each day. Include fruits, vegetables, and fibre in your diet each day.
- Sleep problems. Often, simple measures such as having a regular bedtime, getting some exercise during the day, and avoiding caffeine late in the day can relieve sleep problems.
- Urinary problems. Home treatment for urinary incontinence includes eliminating caffeinated drinks from your diet and establishing a schedule of urinating every 3 to 4 hours, regardless of whether you feel the need. You may also try doing pelvic floor (Kegel) exercises to strengthen your pelvic muscles.
During medical treatment for prostate cancer, you may experience emotional problems. See the following tips for managing:
- Stress. Expressing your feelings to others may help you understand and cope with them. Learning relaxation techniques may also be helpful.
- Body image and sexuality. Your feelings about your body and your sexuality may change after treatment for cancer. Prostate cancer treatments have side effects that almost always affect a man's sexual function, such as loss of sexual desire and the inability to have erections. Treatments can also cause shrinking of the penis and testicles. Talk openly with your partner about your concerns. And discuss with your doctor your concerns about any sexual problems.
Having cancer can change your life in many ways. For help with managing these changes, see the topic: Getting Support When You Have Cancer.
Medicines may be used to slow the growth of prostate cancer and to relieve your symptoms.
Prostate cancer needs the male hormone testosterone to grow. Hormone therapy uses special drugs to block the production or action of testosterone and may cause the cancer to shrink. This can improve your symptoms. Hormone therapy may be given before or after radiation or surgery to remove the prostate.
Hormone therapy usually works well at first to stop cancer growth. But in most cases the cancer returns in a few years. At this point, the cancer is called hormone-resistant. This means it will no longer get better with hormone therapy. When this happens, other kinds of hormone treatment may work. If the cancer continues to grow, chemotherapy or immunotherapy may be the next choice.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to control cancer's growth or relieve pain. Often the drugs are given through a needle in your vein, and your blood vessels carry the drugs through your body. Sometimes the drugs are available as pills you can swallow. Sometimes they are given through a shot, or injection.
Chemotherapy usually involves two or more drugs given together. Combinations may work better than a single medicine. That's because each drug can attack the cancer cells in a different way. This is most often used when prostate cancer is hormone-resistant.
Immunotherapy is treatment that uses the body's immune system to destroy the cancer cells. This is used for prostate cancer that is hormone-resistant.
- LH-RH agonists/GnRH agonists, such as goserelin (Zoladex) and leuprolide (Lupron).
- GnRH antagonists, such as degarelix (Firmagon).
- Antiandrogens, such as abiraterone (Zytiga), bicalutamide (Casodex), and nilutamide (Anandron).
Hormone therapy is commonly used with radiation therapy. It may be used alone with metastatic cancer.
Chemotherapy may be helpful when prostate cancer no longer responds to hormone therapy.
Medicines for castrate-resistant prostate cancer (CRPC)
Medicines to treat CRPC include:
- Abiraterone (Zytiga), given with prednisone (both are pills).
- Chemotherapy with cabazitaxel (Jevtana), given by IV.
- Enzalutamide (Xtandi), given as pills.
Vaccines to keep prostate cancer from coming back after it has been treated are being tested. This type of treatment encourages the body's immune system to destroy cancer cells that remain after prostate cancer surgery. One vaccine, Provenge, was recently approved for use in the United States. It is not currently available in Canada.
Pain-relief and appetite-stimulant drugs
Pain-relief and appetite-stimulant drugs may be used when prostate cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
- Steroids, such as hydrocortisone or prednisone, control pain and improve appetite.
- Radioactive drugs such as samarium-153 and strontium-89 are called radionuclides. They are absorbed near the area of bone pain. Then the radiation that is released helps relieve the pain caused by tumours that have spread to the bone.
- Denosumab (Xgeva) and bisphosphonate drugs, such as pamidronate (Aredia) and zoledronic acid (Zometa), may help relieve bone pain and prevent osteoporosis, which is sometimes caused by long-term hormone therapy.
Pain medicines are made that specifically treat mild, moderate, and severe pain, as well as different types of pain such as burning and tingling. To learn more, see:
For more information, see the topic Cancer Pain.
Medicines for treating side effects
Hormone therapy can cause loss of sexual desire, hot flashes, enlarged and painful breasts, and erection problems.
- For men who have erection problems after surgery, medicines such as sildenafil (Viagra), tadalafil (Cialis), or vardenafil (Levitra) may be helpful. Using medicines soon after surgery may help men regain sexual function. Talk with your doctor about your situation.
- Taking a temporary break from hormone therapy can make some side effects go away.
- To relieve breast pain, the anti-estrogen breast cancer medicine called tamoxifen or radiation treatment is commonly used. Tamoxifen can also help reverse breast growth. Also, it causes hot flashes.
- For hot flashes, taking a certain kind of antidepressant may help. Paroxetine or venlafaxine may help with hot flashes. But they have different side effects. So if you are having a problem with hot flashes, talk with your doctor.
- In some cases, cyproterone (Androcur) may be used to treat hot flashes.
What to think about
Antiandrogen hormone therapy also may cause diarrhea, breast tenderness, and nausea. Cases of liver problems, some serious, have been reported.
Hormone therapy can also affect the bones, making them thin and brittle and more likely to break. Medicines such as bisphosphonates and denosumab may help prevent bone loss during long-term hormone therapy.
Surgery to treat prostate cancer is usually reserved for men in good health who are younger than 70 and who choose to have surgery. Surgery may be done to relieve symptoms and to slow the growth of cancer.
- Radical prostatectomy, the removal of the prostate and its cancer. It is not usually done if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
- Orchiectomy, the removal of the testicles. This may cause the cancer to shrink and may improve symptoms, because prostate cancer often needs the testosterone made by the testicles to grow.
- TURP, or transurethral resection of the prostate. This operation can help to relieve bladder problems, because it removes part of the tumour that may be blocking the urethra, the tube that carries urine from your bladder through your penis. This can keep the tumour from growing for a while. But TURP does not take out the whole tumour.
What to think about
Surgical removal of the testicles (orchiectomy) and hormone therapy medicines have some of the same side effects, including hot flashes, larger breasts, loss of sexual desire, and the inability to have an erection.
Radiation therapy for prostate cancer may be used alone or combined with hormone treatment. Radiation therapy also is used to relieve pain from metastatic cancer or cancer that comes back after surgery.
Radiation therapy for locally advanced prostate cancer is often combined with hormone treatment. Using both together may improve your chances of being disease-free for longer and living longer.footnote 4
External-beam radiation therapy uses a large machine to aim a beam of radiation at your tumour to destroy cancer cells. The radiation damages the genetic material of the cells so that they can't grow. Although radiation damages normal cells as well as cancer cells, the normal cells can repair themselves and function, while the cancer cells cannot. If cancer has spread to your bones, radiation treatment may be given to specific areas to relieve pain.
People sometimes use complementary therapies along with medical treatment to help relieve symptoms and side effects of cancer treatments. Some of the complementary therapies that may be helpful include:
Mind-body treatments like those mentioned above may help you feel better and cope better with treatment. These treatments also may reduce chronic low back pain, joint pain, headaches, and pain from cancer treatments.
Before you try a complementary therapy, talk to your doctor about the possible value and potential side effects. Let your doctor know if you are already using any such therapies. Complementary therapies are not meant to take the place of standard medical treatment, but they may improve your quality of life and help you deal with the stress and side effects of cancer treatment.
You may be interested in taking part in research studies called clinical trials. Clinical trials are designed to find better ways to treat prostate cancer patients and are based on the most up-to-date information. People who do not want standard treatments or are not cured by standard treatments may want to take part in clinical trials.
Check with your doctor to see whether clinical trials are in your area and whether you might be eligible.
- National Cancer Institute (2017). SEER cancer stat facts: Prostate cancer. National Cancer Institute. www.seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/prost.html. Accessed July 10, 2017.
- American Cancer Society (2012). Cancer Facts and Figures 2012. Atlanta: American Cancer Society. Available online: http://www.cancer.org/Research/CancerFactsFigures/CancerFactsFigures/cancer-facts-figures-2012.
- Robbins C, et al. (2007). Confirmation study of prostate cancer risk variants at 8q24 in African Americans identifies a novel risk locus. Genome Research, 17(12): 1717–1722.
- National Cancer Institute (2012). Prostate Cancer Treatment (PDQ)—Health Professional Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/prostate/HealthProfessional.
Adaptation Date: 2/28/2022
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services