Jefferson University Hospitals

Prostate Cancer Frequently Asked Questions

When considering brachytherapy for prostate cancer treatment, we prefer patients be presented with all their options before making their decision.

What is Jefferson's implant consulting process?

Used as a treatment option for prostate cancer, brachytherapy is a procedure that involves implanting tiny radioactive seeds at the site of the tumor, which, compared with external radiation for prostate cancer, allows for a higher dose of radiation to be safely administered.

What kind of physician typically performs the radioactive seed implantation procedure & in what kind of setting?

Radioactive seed implantation is performed in our hospital setting by a team consisting of a radiation oncologist, urologist and a radiation physicist. This is a highly operator dependent procedure and can reflect on the experience of the team.

What should a patient look for in an implant program?

The implant process is the summation of the skill and expertise of the team, which includes a radiation oncologist, urologist and radiation physicist. Because achieving optimal results with this type of radiation for prostate cancer requires substantial technical skill, patients should look for a program with a proven track record.

At Thomas Jefferson University Hospital we have devoted a great deal of time and energy to our implant program, which is recognized nationally and internationally for the research that has resulted from our work.

Describe the planning procedure.

Imaging of the prostate is the first step, which is performed with a CT and /or ultrasound. These images are used to estimate the number of radioactive seeds that will be required for a successful implant.

On the day of the implant, the radiation oncologist, urologist and physicist perform an ultrasound study of the prostate in the operating room to determine the exact location of each needle and seed. A prostate brachytherapy treatment plan is generated carefully based upon this information.

After a careful review of the treatment plan by each member of the team, a coordinate map of the prostate is created, which describes the location coordinates for needle and seed. This treatment plan is used in the operating room and followed closely. Needle and seed placement is confirmed with both ultrasound and fluoroscopy during the procedure. Additional seeds are available in order to make adjustments at the time of the implant.

Describe the length of the procedure & the type of anesthesia.

Typically, the procedure takes about 1½ - 2 hours and is done under general anesthesia. We prefer general anesthesia because our patients seem to tolerate it quite well. Generally, there is no sensation of pain after the procedure and painkillers are unnecessary.

What can the patient expect to feel like after the brachytherapy procedure?

Patients can expect to feel some tenderness and bruising in the affected area. Most patients require no prescription pain medications. After brachytherapy, most prostate cancer patients are somewhat tired and want to relax. Patients are not limited in their activity level after the procedure.

What side effects might occur days after the brachytherapy procedure & how long do they last?

As a result of the brachytherapy procedure, some men experience mild discomfort in the groin area for two to three days, which is managed very effectively with mild analgesics. Some blood may be seen in the urine and sperm for a few days after the procedure. This is normal and stops after two to three days. The scrotal and perineal area can also become swollen/bruised or black and blue.

The side effects of the radiation from the seeds usually begin one to two weeks after seed implantation. The main symptoms are urinary difficulties, such as frequency, urgency, weak stream or slight pain. These can last for two to six months. These can usually be effectively managed with simple medications.

What are the advantages of permanent seed implantation as compared to other treatment options?

For most patients, seed implantation is a one-time, non-surgical, low-impact procedure. Patient can return to normal activity, including work, within one to three days, with little or no pain.

When else might permanent seed implant therapy be considered?

This procedure is an alternative for men who have early-stage prostate cancer with a low risk of disease outside the gland. Permanent seed implantation is also an attractive option for men whose poor health precludes radical prostatectomy.

Does the radiation from permanent seed implants pose any danger to organs or tissue surrounding the prostate?

Because seeds are implanted accurately into the prostate, they pose little risk to surrounding organs or tissue. The radioactive isotopes used in this procedure (Iodine and Palladium) decay over a period of a few months.

Can you tell me a little about the Infusion Center?

The Center features spacious, light-filled treatment bays, individual flat-screen TVs and relaxing décor. There are 20 reclining chairs in the unit along with chairs for anyone who may have accompanied you. There are curtains around each unit that can be used for privacy.

The Infusion Center tends to be cold. We can provide blankets if you are feeling chilly or feel free to bring a blanket from home if it will make you feel more comfortable.

Laptops and cell phones are permitted and can provide instructions on how to connect to the Internet through our Hospital Wi-Fi system, Jeff Guest.

Can I bring a family member with me?

On the day of treatment, we encourage you to bring one family member or friend with you. Depending on the length of treatment and medication administered, you may be too tired to drive home. Please understand that many of our patients are at an increased risk for infection from viruses due to compromised immune systems. It is for this reason that a strict policy has been implemented that no children under the age of 16 may be permitted in the Infusion Center unless they are receiving treatment themselves.

Am I allowed to eat before treatment?

There are no restrictions on what you can eat on the day of treatment and you can eat anything during the treatment process. You can bring in your own food or eat what is provided by the Infusion Center. We have snacks, juices, coffee, tea and sodas available at all times and sandwiches are available at lunchtime.

There are also many places outside of the Infusion Center where you may purchase food.

Am I allowed to take my medications on the day of treatment?

If you are taking any prescription medications for any conditions, you are permitted to take those on the day of treatment unless your oncologist has instructed otherwise. If you are unsure, contact your doctor.

Where can I park?

Valet parking is available on 10th street between Market and Chestnut Streets in the Rothman Building. The cost of parking is dependent upon the length of stay. Your parking ticket will be validated at the end of your stay and costs can range anywhere from $2.00 to $4.00. You may also self-park in the Laz Parking Garage on 10th and Chestnut Streets.

What is the check-in process at the Infusion Center?

Upon arrival you will check in on the 2nd floor. At the reception desk, you will see a computer monitor and you need to enter your name in the computer and take a seat in the waiting room. If you have any questions on how to do this, one of the receptionists can help you.

Within a short time, someone will call your name and you will be asked to verify your identity and contact information some questions and asked to provide copies of insurance cards, referrals if needed and any co-pays to complete your registration. Once you have completed the registration process, you take a seat in the waiting room until your name is called to have your lab work done. If you do not have a port, you will be brought back to have a phlebotomist or nurse draw your blood.

If you do have a port, you will be taken into the Infusion Center to have your labs done via your port by an assigned registered nurse.

If you are seeing your physician on the same day of your treatment, you will do that after your labs have been drawn. The physician offices are located on the 3rd or 4th floors.

Once you have completed your physician visit, you will come back to the Infusion Center where you will be seated and treatment will begin.

What lab work will I need done?

Your physician will order blood work to be drawn prior to each treatment to ensure that your lab values are within range to proceed with treatment. Labs will either be drawn from our highly skilled phlebotomists or by a registered nurse if you have an infusaport.

Once the labs are drawn and sent to the lab, it will take approximately 60 to 90 minutes for your physician to get the results. We encourage: You can ask your doctor to have your lab work done several days prior to treatment to avoid the wait time and to speed up your treatment process.

How long can I expect my treatment to take?

The length of your treatment is dependent on the type of chemotherapy your physician has ordered based on your type of cancer.

On your first visit, your chemotherapy is mixed specifically for you and your type of cancer at our onsite pharmacy. The pharmacist does not start mixing the chemotherapy until they receive a checklist from your assigned nurse.

This checklist contains your lab results and weight, which needs to be a certain range for you to receive treatment. If the lab values and weight are acceptable, the pharmacist will mix the therapy. This process can take approximately 30-60 minutes depending upon the type of chemotherapy you are receiving.

Overall you can expect to be there anywhere from an hour to several hours.

Will I need an IV to receive treatment?

When you come in for your treatment a registered nurse will be assigned to you. They will determine whether you require an IV or if you have a port that needs to be accessed.

What happens if I miss my appointment?

If you miss your appointment, please be sure to notify your physician so you can be rescheduled for another time. Please contact your physician’s office directly to reschedule.

What if I am running late for my appointment?

If you are running late, please notify the front desk. The telephone number is 215-955-8874. You will not be cancelled but you may be delayed in being seated.

How many times will I need to receive chemotherapy treatments?

Your physician will discuss your treatment and determine how often you will need to receive treatment. Depending upon your type of cancer, a chemo cycle could be every week, every two weeks or every three weeks.

What is a Complete Blood Count (CBC)?

This is a lab value that helps your physician determine if you are able to receive treatment. It looks at your white blood count, hemoglobin (the protein molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body's tissues and returns carbon dioxide from the tissues to the lungs.) and platelets (important for blood clotting). If any of these values are extremely low, treatment may be delayed and you will be rescheduled in a week or so to give your counts time to recover.

If your white blood count is too low, you may receive an injection that will boost your count to prevent you from developing an infection or your physician may put you on antibiotics. If your hemoglobin level or platelet count are too low, you may require a blood transfusion.

Where do I go for blood transfusions if I need one?

If you need a blood transfusion because of a low hemoglobin level or platelet count, a blood specimen is drawn and sent to the Blood Bank so that they can match your blood type.

Once your blood type is matched, a bag is prepared and we are notified that it’s ready. Your physician may order pre-medication (Tylenol or Benadryl) prior to the infusion to avoid a possible blood transfusion reaction. Typically the doctor will order 2 units.

This entire process can take up to 4 hours.

What if I have a problem after I get home?

If you have any issues after you receive your treatment please call 215-955-8874 and you will be directed on what to do.

If it is an emergency, please call 911 immediately or go to the nearest hospital.

What are the side effects of chemotherapy?

You may experience some side effects after receiving your treatment. The most commonly reported symptoms are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, peripheral neuropathies, and fatigue. Before your treatment begins, you will be given anti-nausea medications, which will help you during your stay.

It’s important to remember that everyone is different and you may experience none of these effects, some or all. It’s important to share the side effects with your physician who may be able to help you manage the side effects with medications. If your symptoms are severe, please contact your physician immediately.

Also, the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine offers an Integrative Cancer Care Program that provides complementary therapies such as vitamins, special diets, herbs and acupuncture that may help with some of your symptoms.

You also have access to oncology social workers who are trained in individual and family therapy and are available to meet with you to assist with the psychosocial impact of cancer treatment, and can provide a valuable link to available community resources.

I understand I may lose my hair after treatment. Where can I purchase a wig?

Jefferson's Wig Program for Cancer Patients was created to help ease the stress and/or embarrassment of sudden hair loss experienced by our patients. If you are being treated for cancer, either as an inpatient or an outpatient at Jefferson, and you have hair loss, we are happy to provide you with a free synthetic wig, turban or hat.

To make an appointment, place call Patient Services at 215-955-7777 or 5-7777 (from inside the Hospital).

How can I receive palliative care?

Palliative care is provided if a person has a serious illness and one or more of the following:

  • Patient, family, or team need assistance with complex decision making and determination of goals of care
  • Difficult-to-control pain or other symptom distress (such as dyspnea, delirium, nausea) related to a serious medical illness
  • Difficult-to-control psychosocial or spiritual issues related to a serious medical illness
  • Multiple hospitalizations for same diagnosis
  • Progressive decline in functional status
  • Progressive metastatic cancer
  • New diagnosis of life limiting illness for symptom control or determination of goals of care
  • Need for Advance Care Planning or clarification of DNR status
  • Utilization of ICU setting in patient with documented poor prognosis
  • Prolonged ICU stay or transfer to the ICU setting without evidence of progress
  • Questions regarding artificial nutrition or hydration in cognitively impaired, seriously ill or actively dying patients
  • Patient or family requests for care determined by primary team to be differences in family and team goals of care
  • Patient, family, or team request for information regarding hospice appropriateness

What can I expect?

At Jefferson, palliative care is provided in the hospital and in an outpatient setting. In addition, you can expect:

  • Relief from symptoms such as pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, constipation, nausea, loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping
  • Support with emotional, spiritual, or financial stressors that may affect you or a family member during treatment for cancer
  • Help carrying on with your daily life
  • Improved ability to go through medical treatments.
  • Help with understanding your cancer diagnosis and your choices for medical care
  • An improved overall quality of life

Will my insurance cover palliative care?

Most insurance plans, including Medicare and Medicaid, cover palliative care. If costs concern you, a social worker or financial consultant can help you navigate through the benefits process.

Men usually develop prostate problems only when they're older.

Fortunately, most prostate problems are not life threatening. However, prostate cancer is serious and can be fatal if left untreated. Currently, a man dies from prostate cancer every 16.4 minutes. Your doctor can do a simple annual exam and blood test that can detect prostate cancer early. Below are answers to some frequently asked questions about prostate problems.

What is the prostate gland?

The prostate gland is located inside the body, right beneath the bladder and in front of the rectum. The urethra is the tube that carries urine from the bladder. The urethra passes through the center of the prostate. The prostate gland is one of the male sex glands. It produces semen, the substance that carries sperm.

What are symptoms of prostate problems?

Some prostate problems can cause trouble with urination. That's because the prostate gland is near the bladder and urethra, the tube that carries urine out of the body. Visit your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you:

  • Are unable to urinate
  • Need to go to the bathroom more often, especially at night
  • Have difficulty starting or stopping the stream of urine
  • Have a weak stream of urine
  • Feel pain or burning when you urinate
  • Have blood in the urine
  • Have painful discharge of semen (ejaculation) during sex
  • Feel pain in the lower back, pelvis or upper thighs that does not go away

These symptoms may mean you have a prostate problem or other urinary tract issue that may or may not be cancer. In most cases, the symptoms of prostate cancer do not appear in the disease's early stages.

What are some of the prostate problems men may have that are not cancer?

Prostate problems that are not cancer include infections (prostatitis) or an enlarged prostate. Prostate infections affect men of all ages. Bacteria from infections in the urinary tract may cause this condition. Inflammation or congestion of the prostate may be due to aging or a buildup of prostate fluid in the gland.

An enlarged prostate, also known as benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH), is quite common in older men. That's because the prostate gland usually grows larger as a man gets older. As the prostate grows, it may push against the bladder or close around the urethra. This can cause problems with urination. Urinary problems due to an enlarged prostate should not be considered a normal sign of aging, though. You should seek treatment. Without proper treatment, an enlarged prostate sometimes can interfere with a normal lifestyle, and sometimes can cause severe bladder or kidney damage.

Are some men at greater risk for getting prostate cancer?

Men get prostate cancer more than any other type of cancer. Men who are over 50 are more likely to have the disease than younger men. Men with a father or brother who had prostate cancer are also at greater risk than men with no family history of the disease.

What about African-American men & prostate cancer?

African-American men have a higher risk of developing prostate cancer than white men, and more African-American men die from this disease. The reason is not clear, but when prostate cancer is found in African-American men, it is more likely to be late-stage cancer, which is hard to cure. But African-American men who have regular screening exams and who are diagnosed with prostate cancer have a better chance of surviving. Regular screening exams can catch tumors when they're smaller and more curable, and should start at age 40 if you are African-American.

How can I tell if I have prostate cancer or a benign prostate condition?

You can't make a diagnosis on your own. Early-stage prostate cancer usually has no symptoms, which is why regular screenings are so important. Urinary difficulties could be a sign of either prostate cancer or another, benign condition. That's why you should see your doctor as quickly as possible if you have any urinary-related symptoms.

How is prostate cancer detected?

Prostate cancer screening is done by a rectal exam and a prostate specific antigen blood test also known as a PSA blood test. During the rectal exam, your doctor places a gloved finger in the rectum and feels the prostate, checking its size and shape. A prostate with a hard spot may indicate cancer. The PSA blood test measures the level of a protein produced by the prostate. A high PSA level could be a sign of an enlarged prostate or inflammation of the prostate, or it may indicate the presence of cancer. These tests are quick and easy and can help find prostate cancer early when it's more treatable. Prostate cancer can only be diagnosed by a prostate biopsy. Your doctor may recommend a prostate biopsy to make the diagnosis. Discuss with your doctor at what age you should begin having yearly prostate cancer screenings as well as the risks and benefits of the screenings.

What causes prostate cancer?

No one knows what causes prostate cancer. Researchers are looking at heredity, diet (especially fatty foods), hormones, and environmental factors. There is no definite way to prevent prostate cancer, so early detection is key.

What are the stages of prostate cancer?

Once prostate cancer has been found, more tests must be done to determine if cancer cells have spread outside the prostate gland. The size of the cancer and the extent to which cancer cells have spread are described in terms of "stages." Stage T1 and Stage T2 are early stages of prostate cancer, which means the cancer is probably within the prostate gland and has not spread. T3-T4 stage prostate cancer suggests the tumor has grown beyond the prostate gland but is confined within the surrounding areas. Stage N0-N2, M0-M1 means the cancer has spread, usually to lymph nodes on distant sites. This process is called metastasis. You and your doctor need to know the stage of your prostate cancer to determine the best treatment plan.

What is the treatment for prostate cancer?

Prostate cancer treatment is based on how aggressive the cancer is and how far it has spread. The good news is that today, most cases of prostate cancer are found early, before the tumor spreads widely. The most common forms of treatment today are careful observation, surgery, radiation therapy and hormonal therapy.

Careful observation is also called "watchful waiting" or "active surveillance." If the cancer is not aggressive, or if you are older or in poor overall health, this treatment for prostate cancer may be considered. It involves periodic exams and blood tests to see if the cancer changes over time.

Surgical treatment options for prostate cancer include radical prostatectomy (complete prostate removal) or cryotherapy.

Because prostate cancer is often found is several different areas of the prostate, a radical prostatectomy or complete removal of the prostate may be necessary. Sometimes, your doctor may decide to also remove the surrounding lymph nodes to see if the cancer has spread. The benefits of radical prostatectomy are that the entire prostate is removed, the extent of the cancer can be clearly identified, and the PSA level should be undetectable after a successful operation. The risks include infection, bleeding and reaction to the anesthesia. Impotence (inability to get an erection) may be a side effect but is less likely with modern techniques that use "nerve sparing." Incontinence (leakage of urine) is also possible but not common using the latest techniques.

There are several ways to perform a prostate removal procedure. The standard technique uses an incision in the lower abdomen below the belly button. Laparoscopic prostatectomy, which was first performed in the Philadelphia region by Jefferson urologists, requires smaller incisions and telescopes. The next advance uses a robot to assist the surgeon in performing the laparoscopic prostatectomy known as the "robotically assisted laparoscopic radical prostatectomy," or the "da Vinci® Prostatectomy." These minimally invasive techniques offer the potential of less blood loss and more rapid convalescence. Jefferson has several urologic surgeons who have advanced fellowship training in laparoscopic and robotic prostatectomy techniques.

Cryosurgery kills cancer cells through deep freezing. The procedure is available but is not considered a primary surgical treatment for most patients.

Radiation therapy for prostate cancer uses high-energy form of X-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation for prostate cancer may be delivered externally or by placing radioactive seeds (“brachytherapy”) into the prostate directly. The benefits of radiation therapy as a prostate cancer treatment are that it does not involve a major operation and can usually effectively treat the cancer. The side effects are usually mild and can include irritation of the bowels and bladder. Loss of sexual function can also be seen.

The external-beam radiation is done on a daily basis over six to seven weeks. Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Jefferson Health radiation oncologists in the Philadelphia area use the state-of-the-art technique known as Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT), which delivers tightly focused radiation to the prostate while minimizing the dose to the surrounding normal tissues. The latest in image-guided therapy, also used at Jefferson, involves the placement of tiny markers in the prostate that allow the radiation beam to be even more precisely aimed at the prostate. Studies have also shown that some men may benefit from a short course of hormonal therapy along with the radiation to improve the tumor killing.

If you have early stage prostate cancer and no severe urinary symptoms, brachytherapy as a prostate cancer treatment may be an option. This one-time procedure is performed under anesthesia and delivers a high dose of radiation directly into the prostate to kill the tumor.

Most often used when the cancer has spread beyond the prostate, hormone therapy can slow the growth of prostate cancer. Hormone treatment for prostate cancer is also sometimes used along with other treatments, such as radiation, to shrink the prostate and improve the results of the treatment. Hormonal treatments are drugs that reduce the body's production of the male hormone testosterone, a hormone that acts like a fertilizer to help prostate cancer grow. These drugs are usually given as some type of shot – sometimes, along with pills. Some men can experience loss of sexual desire, reduced muscle strength and hot flashes as side effects of the treatment.

Chemotherapy is used if hormonal therapy stops working. It is not currently considered a primary treatment for prostate cancer.

What is the prognosis for prostate cancer patients?

The prognosis for prostate cancer patients has improved steadily over the years. The death rate has fallen dramatically over the last 10 years. Doctors now have a better understanding of how to diagnose this disease early. Better treatment methods have improved survival rates. Today, most men with prostate cancer can be treated effectively and resume their normal lifestyles.

What are clinical trials?

When laboratory research shows that a new treatment method has promise, patients with cancer have the opportunity to receive the treatment in clinical trials or protocols. By participating in a clinical trial, you may have the first chance to benefit from improved treatment methods and the opportunity to make an important contribution to medical science.

To find out more about current clinical trials that you may be able to participate in, ask your doctor or call either the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson's Research Management Office at 215-955-1661 or 1-800-JEFF-NOW.

Here at Jefferson, we want our patients to be as educated and informed as possible when it comes to their cancer care. We suggest you bring a list of questions and a notepad to ensure you get the most information possible during your visit with us. Some frequent questions asked of our radiation oncologists about cancer include:  

  • What type and stage of cancer do I have?
  • How will radiation therapy help me?
  • How does radiation therapy work? Is it internal or external?
  • How many and how long will I receive radiation treatments?
  • What are the chances that radiation therapy will work?
  • What is the chance that the cancer will spread or come back if I do not have radiation therapy?
  • Will I need chemotherapy, surgery or other treatments?
  • How can I expect to feel during treatment and in the weeks following radiation therapy?
  • Can I drive myself to and from the treatment facility? 
  • Will I be able to continue my normal activities? 
  • What side effects may occur from the radiation? 
  • Will radiation therapy affect my ability to have children? 
  • What are some of the support groups I can turn to during treatment?