Sperling Prostate Center

Patients Self Reports Rank Prostatectomy Side Effects Low

UPDATE: 4/10/2023
Originally published 4/18/2017

An Australian study published three years after the blog below offered the same perceptions of prostatectomy side effects. The new paper by Mazariego, et al. (2020) reported on 1642 patients who were treated for their prostate cancer then followed through seven time points over a 15-year period. Treatments included radical prostatectomy (RP), external beam radiation (EBRT), high dose brachytherapy, or androgen deprivation therapy as a primary therapy. Here are key points:

At 15 years, all treatment groups reported high levels of erectile dysfunction, depending on treatment … Patients receiving initial active treatment for localised prostate cancer had generally worse long term self-reported quality of life than men without a diagnosis of prostate cancer. Men treated with radical prostatectomy faired especially badly, particularly in relation to long term sexual outcomes.[i]

It is not our intention to bash prostatectomy, or any other prostate cancer (PCa) treatment. There is a place for each treatment, especially when matched to a patient’s diagnosis and lifestyle wishes. Thanks to multiparametric MRI (mpMRI), in-bore MRI targeted biopsies, and genomic analysis (if indicated), we can know much more about each man’s disease than was possible even a decade earlier. While patient self-report about the impact of treatment on their quality of life, there’s good news: qualified patients who are concerned about possible treatment side effects have more treatment options than ever.


“The customer is always right” is a motto or slogan which exhorts service staff to give a high priority to customer satisfaction. It was popularised by pioneering and successful retailers such as Harry Gordon Selfridge, John Wanamaker and Marshall Field. (Wikipedia)

“The customer is always right” is sometimes wrong, as many companies have learned when disgruntled customers use this slogan as an excuse to speak abusively to employees. In such cases, the customer is wrong because there are courteous, respectful ways to issue a grievance. As consumers of medical care, prostatectomy patients are also customers, but they often avoid expressing complaints to their surgeon about urinary or sexual side effects of treatment. Perhaps this is sometimes due to a feeling of gratitude for being “cured”. Or maybe they feel they surrendered their right to complain by signing informed consent.

How can we find out about the medical consumer’s post-treatment experience? Herein lies the importance of unbiased research. It is even better if there is a way to do an apples-to-apples comparison based on randomization to different treatments

In October, 2016 the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published such a study. A multicenter team of investigators authored the paper, “Patient-Reported Outcomes after Monitoring, Surgery, or Radiotherapy for Prostate Cancer.”[ii] The team followed 1643 prostate cancer patients for 5+ years. Upon diagnosis, those enrolled in the trial were randomized to have either monitoring, surgery, or radiotherapy. This was done under the auspices of the UK ProtecT trial, designed to determine which treatments are best. The self-reports of the patient population were based on questionnaires that were administered before diagnosis, at 6 and 12 months after randomization into treatment or monitoring, and annually from then on. According to the study, “Patients completed validated measures that assessed urinary, bowel, and sexual function and specific effects on quality of life, anxiety and depression, and general health. Cancer-related quality of life was assessed at 5 years.”

Randomization resulted in an even distribution of three groups according to treatment strategy. 545 men were assigned to active monitoring, 553 to prostatectomy, and 545 to radiation. For those who were tracked for 10 years, there were no significant differences in prostate cancer-specific death, but there was a greater incidence of cancer spread (metastasis) and progression (becoming more aggressive) in the monitoring arm. Since progression during monitoring is a trigger for treatment, ultimately 54.8% of that group went on to whole gland treatment.

The investigators noted that “patterns of severity, recovery, and decline in urinary, bowel, and sexual function and associated quality of life differed among the three groups.” As might be expected, those in the monitoring group had no treatment-related side effects (until they went on for treatment) but given 50-69 years of age range among all participants at the start of the study, it makes sense that urinary and sexual function gradually declined for these men even without treatment. For those who underwent radiation, its impact on sexual function was worst at 6 months but “recovered somewhat and stabilized.” There was no dramatic effect on urinary continence, with any symptoms worst at 6 months but gradually returning to a level similar to the two other groups by 12 months.

Prostatectomy urinary and sexual side effects were the worst across all groups, and remained so over the longer term of the study. While there was some improvement, according to the patients’ own reports urinary and sexual outcomes “remained worse vs radiotherapy and monitoring over 6 years.”

Since those who took part in this excellent study were sharing their experience by means of standardized questionnaires to a scientifically neutral team for analysis, their responses weren’t complicated with emotions they might have had if speaking with their own urologists. In that sense, the patient feedback is about as honest and objective as is possible to obtain – which is why it’s so vital to conduct these types of studies.

Perhaps in the future, we will see randomized studies in which 1) biopsy-naïve patients undergo 3T mpMRI without an endorectal coil, 2) those with suspicious areas have in-bore MRI-guided targeted biopsy, 3) those positive for low-risk cancer have additional genomic analysis, and then 4) those who are finally determined to be low-risk are randomly assigned to Active Surveillance, prostatectomy, radiation therapy, or focal laser ablation. Then all patients would be followed for a minimum of 5 years by annual mpMRI and questionnaires (with the understanding that a suspicious mpMRI would trigger a targeted biopsy, etc.) Meanwhile, I conclude with a note of gratitude to the work of the ProtecT Trial and the researchers involved with it.

NOTE: This content is solely for purposes of information and does not substitute for diagnostic or medical advice. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing pelvic pain, or have any other health concerns or questions of a personal medical nature.

[i] Mazariego CG, Egger S, King MT, Juraskova I et al. Fifteen year quality of life outcomes in men with localised prostate cancer: population based Australian prospective study. BMJ. 2020 Oct 7;371:m3503.
[ii] Donovan JK, Hamdy FC, Lane JA, Mason M et al. Patient-Reported Outcomes after Monitoring, Surgery, or Radiotherapy for Prostate Cancer. N Engl J Med. 2016 Oct 13;375(15):1425-1437. Epub 2016 Sep 14.


About Dr. Dan Sperling

Dan Sperling, MD, DABR, is a board certified radiologist who is globally recognized as a leader in multiparametric MRI for the detection and diagnosis of a range of disease conditions. As Medical Director of the Sperling Prostate Center, Sperling Medical Group and Sperling Neurosurgery Associates, he and his team are on the leading edge of significant change in medical practice. He is the co-author of the new patient book Redefining Prostate Cancer, and is a contributing author on over 25 published studies. For more information, contact the Sperling Prostate Center.

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