Life after prostate surgery worse than men expect

Jun 30, 2011, 2:23 p.m.

By Kerry Grens

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Nearly half of men who undergo surgery to treat prostate cancer find themselves with greater incontinence problems and less sexual function than they had anticipated, according to a new poll.

Before the surgery, some men in the study had expected to get better urinary and sexual function a year after the procedure -- a misbelief that the researchers say is out of step with the reality of prostate cancer surgery.

"Those results were surprising," said Dr. Tracey Krupski, an assistant professor of urology at the University of Virginia, and who was not involved in this study.

"Any intervention that you do to a patient, whether it be surgical or radiation, is never going to make the person (function) better than they are at the present time," Krupski said.

According to the American Cancer Society, one out of every six men in the United States will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point.

While there is controversy over how to treat low-risk tumors, some of which may never cause any harm if left untreated, surgery and radiation are common options when the disease is more advanced. Every year, tens of thousands of men select surgery for their treatment.

As part of the new survey, 152 men who had part or all of their prostate removed for cancer treatment filled out a questionnaire before surgery. They first had counseling to educate them about the risks of the procedure, which include erectile dysfunction and incontinence.

The questions asked about their expectations of urinary, bowel and sexual function a year after the surgery.

About half of men expected that they would have the same function after surgery as before, and 17 percent of men anticipated better sexual function after the surgery.

One year later, the researchers followed up with the patients and found that just 36 percent of men's expectations for urinary function matched the true outcomes, and 40 percent of the expectations for sexual function matched reality.

Daniela Wittmann, the sexual health coordinator in the urology department at the University of Michigan and a researcher on the study, said doctors are unable to tell patients specifically how well they are likely to recover their urinary and sexual functions.

"We can only (inform them) in terms of overall statistics, we can't predict for the individual man" how well he will recover, Wittmann said, "which means that, if in doubt, people tend toward being hopeful and optimistic."

One recent study showed that, one year after surgery, only one out of four men recovered his ability to have intercourse. (See Reuters Health report, April 21, 2011.)

In May, another research team found that some degree of incontinence was common, too, although men tended not to be significantly bothered by it. (See Reuters Health report, June 3, 2011.)

Krupski said men's unrealistic expectations can be a double-edged sword. On the one side, optimism is known to help people heal, but on the other side, "it may ultimately lead to disappointment when adjusting to a long term disability."

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