Life is full of risks, but if you are one of the legion of men with prostate cancer whose urologist is recommending a radical prostatectomy, make sure you have considered the following risks of collateral damage:
Urinary leakage is usually a temporary problem after a prostatectomy, but even the best urologists report that about 7% of their patients are left with permanent and constant urinary drainage. Less skilled surgeons have much higher rates. After surgery, most men experience some minor leakage when they cough, lift, bend over, or laugh.
Another problem is the formation of scar tissue in the urethra, the passage from the bladder to the penis. The suture site where the severed urethra is reconnected can become constricted by scar tissue that blocks the flow of urine. This may be correctable with urethral dilation, a process forcing oversized, stainless steel probes up the penis to stretch out the ring of rock-hard tissue. Unfortunately, scar tissue is notoriously uncooperative, often refusing to stretch at all. In some cases the stretching fractures the brittle ring of tissue, resulting in permanent incontinence. If that happens, another operation is required to implant an artificial sphincter.
Without nerve-sparing surgery permanent erectile dysfunction is virtually inevitable. With nerve-sparing surgery, the best surgeons hope to be able to save the nerve bundles (located very close to the back of the prostate on both sides) that control erections. If both sides of the nerve bundles can be saved, potency is around 40% to 75% in patients under 70 years old (depending on which expert you consult, and the patient characteristics). If only one side of the nerve bundles can be saved, potency drops to around 25% to 45%. However, until the doctor actually performs your surgery, he won’t know whether he can spare the nerve bundles.
Even men who recover their erections after surgery undergo a prolonged period of impotence, often lasting up to a year or more. During this time of enforced abstinence, as with any unused muscle, atrophy of the penis occurs. This means that of the men who end up recovering some degree of erectile function, only 5% report that their erections are as good as before surgery. Additionally, despite claims from urologists who maintained for years that patients’ complaints of penis shrinkage were anatomically impossible, diligent researchers have finally collected the necessary measurements showing that shrinkage is common. The average amount is about one-half inch, although some men undergo considerably greater shrinkage.
Studies show that impotence can totally redefine a man’s self-esteem, his self-confidence and his relational satisfaction. In some cases Viagra can help with surgically induced impotence. However, penis vacuum devices, penis tourniquets, penis injections (yes, with needles) or the surgical implantation of a plastic rod into the penis is often required to restore function. In my case, lead me to the monastery!
Other Rare but Possible Risks from Surgery:
- Significant blood loss requiring transfusions
- Pain from surgery
- Blood clots in the legs
- Heart Attack
- Temporary or permanent memory loss from anesthesia
- Miscellaneous surgery-related problems
So with these considerable risks, what is the pay-off for undergoing surgery? The major pay-off is, if you are lucky and have a successful nerve-sparing prostatectomy, it will cure the cancer and you will suffer minimal collateral damage. The only other advantage is you get a better idea of how serious your cancer is because the pathologist evaluates the prostate after its removal. If he finds that the cancer has spread even a little, you and your doctor can decide what to do next.
No one knows for sure which prostate cancer treatment gives a better chance for cure or a better quality of life. But if you decide to go with a prostatectomy, make sure that the surgeon you are considering is experienced and skilled in the procedure.