This page discusses the use of radiation therapy for the treatment of prostate cancer. For a thorough review of radiation therapy, please see the radiation therapy treatment monograph .

Radiation therapy is the use of penetrating beams of high-energy waves or streams of particles called radiation to treat disease. Radiation therapy destroys the ability of cancer cells to grow and divide.

When Radiation Therapy is Used

Radiation therapy is one of the main treatments for prostate cancer in which there is no evidence of spread to other parts of the body (localized cancer).

In cases of advanced prostate cancer (cancer that has spread), radiation therapy is usually not curative. It is used to control symptoms. Radiation therapy can reduce pain due to spread of the cancer to the bones, which is a very common problem, and relieve a variety of other complications of the disease.

The types of radiation therapy used to treat prostate cancer include the following:

External Radiation Therapy

In external radiation therapy, rays are directed at the tumor from outside the body. Radiation treatments for prostate cancer are given as an outpatient treatment, five days a week, over approximately seven weeks. Individual treatment sessions last about three minutes.

Side effects from external radiation are often due to the effects of radiation on normal tissue. Side effects may include:

  • Urinary tract inflammation and urinary urgency and frequency
  • Incontinence (loss of control of urine)
  • Impotence (inability to get or maintain an erection)
  • Diarrhea
  • Decrease appetite
  • Nausea

Radiation of a Tumor

Radiation of Tumor
© 2009 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.

Internal Radiation Therapy (Brachytherapy)

Internal radiation therapy, also called brachytherapy, places the radiation source as close as possible to the cancer cells. Radioactive material, sealed in a thin wire, catheter, or tube, is placed directly into the affected tissue.

To treat prostate cancer, a capsule containing radioactive materials is placed directly into the prostate or around the area of the prostate. Some types of implants are left in place permanently while others are left in place for only one to three days. Depending on which type of implant you receive, you may stay in the hospital while the implants are in place. Sometimes internal radiation is combined with external radiation therapy.

Side effects, most of which have a lower risk than with external radiation, may include:

  • Incontinence
  • Impotence
  • Urinary tract inflammation with urinary urgency and frequency
  • Rectal ulcers

There have been no high-quality studies directly comparing the results with internal radiation therapy, external radiation therapy, and surgery in the treatment and cure of prostate cancer. Therefore, the choice of treatment will often come down to an individual patient’s preference, with guidance from their doctors.

The practice of internal radiation therapy, like surgery, is dependent on who is doing the procedure. Many reports have demonstrated that surgery or internal radiation therapy should be performed by a skilled physician who does many cases each week. Otherwise, you may have more side effects and a greater chance of cancer recurrence.

For more information on radiation therapy, including how to manage the side effects, please see the radiation therapy treatment monograph .