Jefferson University Hospitals

Frequently Asked Questions

Is surgery the only treatment needed?

When a polyp is removed by colonoscopy, it is usually the only treatment needed.

For colorectal cancer, surgery is the normal treatment and is often the only treatment needed when the cancer is detected early. In some cases, your specialist can remove the cancer using colonoscopy. Often, an open surgical procedure will be required. Treatment may also include radiation therapy before, during or after surgery; chemotherapy after surgery; or immunotherapy to strengthen the body’s immune system so it can attack and destroy cancer cells. These cancer treatments may be given separately or in combination. Your doctor will recommend the treatment methods best for you, depending on the size of the tumor, the stage of malignancy and whether it has metastasized, or spread, as well as other factors.

If I have colorectal cancer, will I have to have a colostomy?

Usually not. Surgeons can almost always treat colon cancer by removing the cancerous part of the colon and joining the remaining two ends together. Other times, a procedure called a colostomy may be needed. In this surgery, the cancerous part of the bowel is removed, after which the surgeon creates an artificial opening in the abdomen, bypassing the lower colon and rectum for the elimination of body waste. The waste is collected in a special bag attached to the opening.

Usually, a colostomy is only temporary, to give your bowel time to heal. In fact, thanks to new medical and surgical developments in recent years, the need for permanent colostomies has been significantly reduced. Today, even patients with rectal cancer, whose only choice in the past was usually a permanent colostomy, have other options. Preoperative radiation therapy and innovative surgical techniques can treat cancer in the lower rectum without jeopardizing the natural function of the muscles that control bowel habits, thereby dramatically reducing the likelihood of needing a colostomy.

Will I have to come back after treatment?

Once you have been treated for polyps or, especially, colorectal cancer or its precursors, you must remain vigilant. Your doctor will want to use blood tests, as well as other screening tests described above, to watch for any reoccurrence, suspicious areas or warning signs of any additional cancer.

What is lung cancer?

Lung cancer occurs when the normal action of cells division becomes uncontrollable, and a mass of tissue called a tumor forms.

Malignant tumors are cancers, which can invade and damage nearby lymph nodes, tissues and organs. Cancer cells can also break away from a malignant tumor and enter the bloodstream, spreading to other parts of the body where they can form new tumors. Build up of fluid around involved lung, or plural effusion, could be an indicator of lung cancer.

It is also possible to have a non-cancerous (benign) tumor in the lung which rarely poses a threat to life. Despite that such lesions still may need to be removed to make sure that no malignancy is present in that area.

What causes lung cancer?

Research has shown that certain risks increase a person's likelihood of developing lung cancer: 

  • Tobacco smokers
  • Secondhand exposure to tobacco smoke
  • Asbestos, radon and air pollution exposure
  • Being age 65 or older
  • People who drink water containing arsenic
  • Prior history of lung cancer
  • Family history of lung cancer

What are the types of lung cancer?

Nearly all lung cancers are carcinomas – cancers that begin in the lining or glandular tissues of an organ.

Lung cancers are generally divided into two major groups: non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer. The tumor cells of each type of lung cancer grow and spread differently and each type needs different treatment.

Nonsmall cell lung cancer is the more common of the two groups. The three main types of nonsmall cell lung cancer are named for the type of cells in the tumor:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma, also called epidermoid carcinoma, is the most common type of lung cancer in the United States and many other countries. This disease often begins in the bronchi, or large air tubes leading to the lungs. It usually spreads less quickly than other types of lung cancer.
  • Adenocarcinoma usually begins along the outer edges of the lungs and under the lining of the bronchi. This is the most common type of lung cancer in women and in people who have never smoked. The incidence of adenocarcinomas is on the rise.
  • Large cell carcinomas, which usually begin along the outer edges of the lungs, are a group of cancers with large, abnormal-looking cells.

Small cell lung cancer grows rapidly and spreads quickly to other organs. This type of lung cancer accounts for 10 percent to 20 percent of all lung cancers.

What are the symptoms of lung cancer?

At first, lung cancer usually doesn't cause symptoms. Doctors sometimes discover it in people without symptoms after a chest X-ray for another medical reason. Usually, however, lung cancer is found after the growing tumor causes symptoms to appear.

A cough, which is the most common symptom of lung cancer, is likely to occur when a tumor irritates the lining of the airways or blocks the passage of air. The person may have a “smoker's cough” that worsens.

Another symptom of lung cancer is constant chest pain. Other symptoms may include shortness of breath, wheezing, repeated bouts of pneumonia or bronchitis, coughing up blood or hoarseness.

A tumor that presses on large blood vessels near the lung can cause swelling of the neck and face. If the tumor presses on certain nerves near the lung, it can cause pain and weakness in the shoulder, arm or hand. Problems with vision could be an indirect sign of nerve involvement as well.

In addition, lung cancer symptoms may not seem related to the lungs. Like all cancers, lung cancer can cause fatigue, loss of appetite and loss of weight. If the disease spreads elsewhere, it may cause headache, pain or bone fractures.

Other signs or symptoms of lung cancer result from substances the lung cancer cells make. For example, certain lung cancer cells produce a substance that sharply reduces the level of sodium (a component of salt) in the blood. This can cause many symptoms, including confusion and sometimes even coma.

None of these, however, is a sure sign of lung cancer. Only a physician can tell whether a patient's symptoms are caused by lung cancer or another problem.

How is a lung cancer diagnosis determined?

A lung cancer diagnosis is made through a series of questions, examinations and tests. Your doctor will start by asking about personal and family medical background, as well as smoking and work history.

The physician also performs a physical examination and usually orders chest X-rays and other tests.

In addition, the doctor may order a computerized tomography (CT) scan, which is a series of X-ray images put together by a computer. These detailed pictures can reveal a tumor in the lung, but they cannot show whether the tumor is benign or malignant.

The only sure way a lung cancer diagnosis can be determined is to obtain cells from the lungs for examination under the microscope. Sometimes, cancer cells are in the sputum, a thick fluid that the patient coughs up from deep in the airways. Also, the doctor usually does a lung biopsy to remove a sample of cells from the lung.

When a lung cancer diagnosis is suspected, physicians will perform a biopsy, physicians use one of the following procedures:

  • Bronchoscopy – this permits the physician to look into the breathing passages through a bronchoscope, which is a thin, flexible, lighted tube inserted through the nose or mouth under local or general anesthesia. The doctor can brush or wash cells from the walls of bronchi or snip off small pieces of tissue for study under the microscope. Depending on the location of the tumor, transbroncheal biopsy of the tumor may be performed.
  • Percutaneous Needle biopsy – removal of tissue hard to reach with the bronchoscope. With the patient under a local anesthetic and using CT or X-ray fluoroscopy guidance, the doctor inserts a needle through the chest wall into the tumor to withdraw a small sample of tissue.
  • Thoracentesis – an examination of fluid from the pleura (the fluid-filled sac surrounding the lungs). With the patient under local anesthesia, the physician uses a needle to remove a fluid sample and to have it checked for cancer cells.
  • Mediastinoscopy – Permits surgeons to sample lymph nodes that drain the lungs and may be the first defense barrier to a tumor spread. It allows for better staging of lung cancer thus influencing treatment. Done under general anesthesia, media-stinoscopy does not require overnight stay.
  • Video-Assisted Thoracic Surgery (VATS) – a minimally invasive procedure involving the introduction into the chest of a video camera that transmits a picture to a video monitor. This allows surgeons to see structures within the chest so they can remove tissue samples to have them checked for cancer. This procedure requires general anesthesia. Removal of certain lesions with this technique is a possibility as well.
  • Thoracotomy – the surgical opening of the chest that requires general anesthesia, used for some patients who require surgery for a lung cancer diagnosis or for lung cancer treatment.

If the physician feels an enlarged liver or swollen lymph nodes (small bean-shaped structures that store special cells to trap cancer cells or bacteria traveling through the body), these areas may also be biopsied. The doctor may also perform a biopsy from other areas other than the lungs when cancer is suspected.

What is lung cancer staging & how is it performed?

With a diagnosis of lung cancer, physicians need to learn the stage of the lung cancer, or extent, to which the disease has progressed so they can give appropriate treatment.

Lung cancer staging is a careful process to find out whether the lung cancer has spread and, if so, to what other parts of the body.

To learn whether a patient's lung cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the chest, physicians remove a sample of tissue either with a needle or surgically.

Surgery to biopsy lymph nodes in the chest can often be done through a small incision near the breastbone. If a thoracoscopy or a thoracotomy is planned, physicians will remove lymph nodes at that time. Patients receive general anesthesia for these operations.

Doctors may order CT scans to detect the spread of lung cancer to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body, including the brain, liver and other abdominal organs.

Radionuclide scans of the bones may also help determine whether the cancer has spread beyond the lung. For these procedures, a small amount of a radioactive substance is injected into a vein, after which a machine scans the body to reveal abnormal areas.

Radiolabeled monoclonal antibodies against lung cancer could also be used to detect the spread of the disease.

In another technique, called magnetic resonance imaging, a strong magnet linked to a computer produces images that indicate whether lung cancer has spread to the brain or spinal cord.

What are the stages of lung cancer?

Non-small cell lung cancer has four main stages:

  • Stage I: Lung cancer is found in the lung, but it has not spread outside the lung.
  • Stage II: Lung cancer is found in the lung and nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage III: Lung cancer is in the lung and lymph nodes in the middle of the chest.
  • Stage IIIA: Lung cancer is found in lymph nodes, but only on the same side of the chest where cancer first started growing.
  • Stage IIIB: Lung cancer has spread to lymph nodes on the opposite side of the chest or to lymph nodes above the collarbone.
  • Stage IV: Lung cancer has spread to both lungs, into the area around the lungs, or to distant organs.

Small-cell lung cancer (SCLC) has two main stages: limited and extensive. In the the limited stage, lung cancer is only in one lung or nearby lymph nodes on the same side of the chest. The extensive stage means lung cancer has spread to other areas of the lungs and chest. Lung cancer at this stage may also spread to the fluid around the lungs (called the pleura) or other organs.

What are the main lung cancer treatment options?

Lung cancer treatment is more successful the earlier cancer is detected.

Physicians will develop a lung cancer treatment plan comprising surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of the three, and tailor it to each patient's needs.

The type of treatment plan depends on many factors, including the type of lung cancer, the size and location of the tumor and the stage of the disease. Other factors to consider are the patient's age, medical history and general health.

Patients may have just one form of treatment or a combination, depending on their needs; several specialists may work as a team to provide treatment for lung cancer.

  • Surgery is performed for early-stage lung cancers when it's likely that all of the tumor can be removed. Three main types of surgery are used to treat lung cancer. The choice depends on the size, location and extent of the tumor; the general health of the patient, and other factors.
  • An operation to remove only a small part of the lung is called a segmental or wedge resection.
  • A lobectomy is the procedure in which the surgeon removes an entire lobe of the lung.
  • Pneumonectomy is the removal of an entire lung.
  • Radiation therapy like surgery, is a local treatment that kills the cancer in the treated area and is usually given five days a week for several weeks at the hospital on an outpatient basis.
  • Chemotherapy is the systemic treatment with medications that kill cancer cells. This means that the medications flow through the bloodstream to nearly every part of the body. Most anticancer medications are injected into a blood vessel or a muscle; some are given by mouth. Chemotherapy is most often given in cycles – a treatment period alternating with a "rest" period.

Usually, patients have chemotherapy as outpatients: at the hospital, at the physician's office or at home. Sometimes, depending on which medications the physician orders, patients may need to stay in the hospital a few days to be monitored for side effects.

If diagnosed with lung cancer, should I get a second opinion?

Lung cancer treatment and making decisions as to what is the best treatment option once a diagnosis with lung cancer has been made can be complicated for you and your loved ones. Before starting treatment, patients might want another doctor to review the diagnosis and the treatment plan. Here are ways to find another doctor to give a second opinion:

Patients can call Thomas Jefferson University Hospital's free physician referral service at 1-800-JEFF-NOW.

Your doctor may be able to suggest a lung cancer specialist. Specialists who treat lung cancer include thoracic (chest) surgeons, radiation oncologists and medical oncologists.

Patients can obtain the names of physicians from their local medical society, a nearby hospital or a medical school.

What is the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer?

Treating non-small cell lung cancer can be approached in several ways. The choice of treatment depends mainly on the stage of lung cancer.

Surgery is the usual treatment for lung cancer patients whose cancer is in only one lung or in one lung and the closest lymph nodes. New studies are designed to assess whether additional forms of systemic therapy before or after surgery can prevent further recurrences of the cancer.

Patients who can't have surgery because of other medical problems often receive radiation therapy. Radiation therapy is also the usual treatment for patients whose cancer has spread within the chest to more distant lymph nodes or other tissues.

It has recently been shown that chemotherapy enhances the effects of radiation therapy and is now used with radiation in most instances. Some non-small cell lung cancer patients have both surgery and radiation therapy.

Chemotherapy is used to treat patients whose cancer has spread from the lung to other parts of the body. Radiation therapy is used to control specific symptoms caused by the spread of lung cancer to specific parts of the body. Although it's very difficult to control lung cancer that has spread, treatment can often shrink the tumors. This can help relieve pain and other symptoms.

What is the treatment of small cell lung cancer?

Small cell lung cancer may spread quickly. To be sure that treatment affects all cancer cells in the body, chemotherapy is used for virtually all patients, even when the disease appears to be limited to the lung and nearby lymph nodes. Usually, chemotherapy for small cell lung cancer treatment includes a combination of two or more anticancer drugs.

When small cell lung cancer appears clinically limited to the lung, treatment also includes radiation therapy. Radiation therapy is also used to treat the lung, even without evidence of cancer, to prevent tumors from forming there; this treatment is reserved for patients whose lung tumor has responded well to treatment.

Surgery combined with chemotherapy can also be part of the treatment plan for small cell lung cancer, but only for a small number of patients.

What is the latest lung cancer research being conducted?

Scientists are continuing to identify factors that increase the risk for lung cancer. Recent lung cancer research has shown that genetic factors play an important role in this disease. For example, certain genetic traits make some people very sensitive to cancer-causing agents. Smokers with these traits may be more likely than other smokers to develop lung cancer.

Researchers are also studying ways to help people lower their risk of lung cancer by using natural and laboratory-made substances to prevent or delay cancer. Because some vitamins can be dangerous if taken in large doses, it's best to get a doctor's advice before taking vitamins or other nutrients. 

The earlier lung cancer is detected, the more successful lung cancer treatment is likely to be. Lung cancer research suggests that the use of low-dose CT of the chest (LDCT) can improve survival due to early detection of lung cancer by as much as 20 percent. LDCT uses X-rays to take a picture of the inside of your lungs and is able to detect lung nodules. New guidelines indicate that screening for lung cancer in high-risk patients can save lives. 

Because lung cancer is also difficult to control, researchers seek more effective treatment options for the disease, plus ways to reduce the side effects of treatment and improve the quality of patients' lives.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death each year across the globe. However, lung cancer screenings and emerging technologies including biomarkers, nonsurgical approaches to biopsy, novel therapies involving radiotherapy and immunotherapy are giving hope to patients.

Are any lung cancer trials enrolling?

When laboratory research shows that a new treatment for lung cancer has promise, patients with lung cancer have the opportunity to receive the treatment in clinical trials or protocols.

By participating in a clinical trial for lung cancer, you may have the first chance to benefit from improved lung cancer treatment methods and the opportunity to make an important contribution to medical science.

To find out more about current lung cancer clinical trials that you may be able to participate in, ask your doctor or call 215-955-1661 or 1-800-JEFF-NOW.

Ovarian cancer is the rapid growth of abnormal cells in the ovaries of the female reproductive system. The ovaries are the two small egg-filled sacs on each side of the uterus which produce estrogen and play a key role in conception and menstruation. Cancer can occur in one or both ovaries. When there is a malignancy, the ovaries typically enlarge, and cancer cells may fall off the ovary's surface and implant themselves throughout the abdominal cavity. Each one of these seedlings can then grow into a separate ovarian cancer tumor nodule.

Who is at risk for ovarian cancer?

Each year, more than 20,000 American women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The disease most often affects post-menopausal women, although women of any age may develop it. While scientists have not uncovered the cause, women in any of the following categories are known to be at higher risk: those who are infertile, who have never been pregnant, who bore children at a later age, who have had breast cancer, and women with family members who have had ovarian cancer. You cannot transmit the disease through physical or sexual contact.

Taking birth control pills reduces your risk for the disease. Women who have had tubal ligations are also less likely to get ovarian cancer. And the more often a woman has been pregnant, the less likely she is to develop ovarian cancer.

What are the symptoms of ovarian cancer?

Cancer of the ovaries often develops with no early warning signs. The first indication of the disease may be a swelling or feeling of fullness in the lower abdomen. Ovarian cancer can also cause indigestion, unusual bowel or rectal pressure, and abdominal pain or discomfort. Persistent digestive problems such as stomach discomfort, distention and gas might also be symptoms.

Your doctor may notice an ovarian cyst or other growth during your regular pelvic exam. Cysts on the ovaries rarely turn out to be cancerous, especially in women under 40. Most of these growths are normal and related to the menstrual cycle, but your physician will want to watch you closely to be certain the cyst resolves.

Can ovarian cancer be prevented?

Women who have annual pelvic exams increase their chance of early detection and a better treatment outcome if the disease is discovered. If any family relative has had cancer of the ovaries, your physician may advise you to have checkups more frequently. The genes for ovarian cancer are not “sex linked,” which means that the gene for the disease can be inherited from either your mother or father.

What if my doctor detects a growth on my ovaries?

If your doctor suspects cancer of the ovaries based on your symptoms and on a pelvic examination – a number of diagnostic procedures can help determine whether the abnormal growth is cancerous. Frequently, growths on the ovaries turn out to be nonmalignant cysts.

To determine whether the tumor is malignant, you may be referred to a gynecologic oncologist (cancer specialist) for one or a combination of the following tests:

  • Ultrasound – a painless, non-invasive sound wave technique that enables your doctor to examine the inside of your abdomen and the ovaries
  • Lower GI series – produces an X-ray of your colon to determine whether pressure from an ovarian tumor is changing the shape and position of the colon and rectum
  • CT or CAT Scan – an X-ray procedure that provides detailed pictures of cross sections of the body. The pictures are created by a computer
  • Laparotomy or Laparoscopy – these surgical procedures involve making an incision in the abdomen to biopsy the suspicious ovarian tissue. The surgeon removes the entire affected ovary so that the disease, if present, doesn't spread. You may wish to obtain a second opinion from another physician before scheduling a laparotomy.

What are some questions I need to ask my physician if ovarian cancer is diagnosed?

  1. Have you had special training in the management of gynecologic cancers or can you refer me to such a specialist?
  2. Has the cancer spread?
  3. What are the surgical options?
  4. Will I need chemotherapy or radiation, too?
  5. What are the potential side effects of the recommended treatments?
  6. Will I be infertile after treatment or are there other options?
  7. Can I work and continue my normal activities during treatment?

How is cancer of the ovaries treated?

Treating ovarian cancer requires inpatient surgery, usually performed by a gynecologic oncologist. After confirming a diagnosis of cancer, your doctor will surgically remove the affected ovary. Most often – as a precautionary measure or because the cancer has spread – your doctor will remove both ovaries, along with the fallopian tubes and uterus. In addition, the surgeon will also take samples of nearby lymph nodes, and other internal structures including fluid from the abdomen to determine whether the cancer has spread.

After surgery, most patients receive chemotherapy (anti-cancer drugs) for approximately six months to destroy any remaining cancer cells.

What are the side effects of treatment?

For several days after surgery, a woman may have problems emptying her bladder and having normal bowel movements. Doctors generally advise patients not to have sexual intercourse for 6 to 8 weeks after surgery. Removal of the ovaries also triggers menopause immediately. Symptoms such as hot flashes may be more severe than when menopause happens naturally.

The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the drug that is administered. Each woman will also respond differently to the medication. Typical temporary side effects may include lowered resistance to infections, loss of energy, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, hair loss, hearing problems, mouth sores and tingling or numbness of the fingers or toes.

What is the prognosis for ovarian cancer?

Follow-up care is important. You will require regular pelvic exams and lab tests to be sure the cancer has not returned. Your physician may recommend a "second look" laparotomy after completion of therapy to ensure the treatment has been successful. Women treated for ovarian cancer also have an increased risk of developing other types of cancer later in life and need special monitoring.

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 215-955-1661 or 1-800-JEFF-NOW.

For an appointment with a Jefferson physician, more information or health information and education programs, please call 1-800-JEFF-NOW (1-800-533-3669).

Jefferson also offers a number of cancer support and education programs as well as a Buddy Program in which survivors of cancer provide support and encouragement to patients who are newly diagnosed and an active cancer advocacy group. You'll find information on the Jefferson web site about these programs or by calling 1-800-JEFF-NOW.

Speech- or hearing-impaired callers can access JEFF NOW® by calling 1-800-654-5984.

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?