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Does proton beam therapy help you maintain sexual function with prostate cancer?

For men facing a prostate cancer diagnosis, their treatment is a journey filled with important decisions, especially when it comes to preserving aspects of quality of life, such as sexual function. Among the array of treatments available, proton beam therapy has emerged as a safe, precise and effective option.

Research increasingly shows that proton beam therapy is an effective option for treating certain prostate cancers. Its ability to target tumours with high precision helps minimise damage to healthy tissue surrounding the prostate, reducing the risk of sexual dysfunction.

In this article, consultant oncologist Dr Jason Lester poses and answers some key questions about how proton beam therapy can impact sexual health for those undergoing treatment for prostate cancer.

Is proton beam therapy safe for treating the prostate?

Proton beam therapy (PBT) is a safe and effective treatment and can help men maintain sexual function.

Proton beam therapy delivers radiation with a high level of accuracy, targeting the cancer cells while minimising exposure to surrounding healthy tissue, including the rectum (back passage), bladder and penile bulb. This precision plays a crucial role in reducing the risk of side effects commonly associated with prostate cancer treatments.

The benefits of treating prostate cancer with proton beam therapy are that it is:

  • Precise: It can deliver a targeted dose of radiation to the tumour while minimising exposure to healthy tissue surrounding the prostate. This helps to reduce the risk of side effects, including bowel problems, bladder problems and erectile dysfunction.
  • Effective: Proton beam therapy is at least as effective as other treatments for prostate cancer.
  • Safe: Proton beam therapy is a safe and well-tolerated treatment option with a low risk of significant side effects.

Men treated with proton beam therapy will usually have a ‘spacer’. A spacer is a small medical device separating the rectum from the prostate, which will be placed several weeks before the treatment begins.

In my experience, proton beam therapy delivered with a spacer results in very low doses of radiation to the rectum, and very few, if any, men will suffer from significant bowel problems after the treatment.

Can you maintain sexual function after proton beam therapy?

It’s important for patients to understand that any treatment for prostate cancer, including proton beam therapy,  can potentially affect sexual function in the long term. However, precautions can be taken to ensure any risk is minimised.

The penile bulb sits just below the prostate gland. Its functions include helping to maintain an erection. It is known that higher doses of radiation to the penile bulb during prostate cancer treatment increase the risk of erectile dysfunction.

We make sure that the dose to the penile bulb is kept to a minimum, and the precision of PBT allows us to safely do this without compromising the effectiveness of the treatment. Whilst outcomes do vary, in my experience, the majority of men who are sexually potent before treatment remain so after being treated with proton beam therapy.

What can I do to maintain sexual health during proton beam therapy?

We encourage men with prostate cancer who are deciding on treatment options to actively engage with their healthcare team to discuss potential side effects, including those of proton beam therapy.

Discussing concerns openly helps patients and the healthcare teams dedicated to looking after them make the right choices regarding treatment options.

It is important that prostate cancer patients feel empowered to ask questions before committing to a course of treatment, people sometimes find reassurance from a second opinion.

Are there sexual side effects to treating prostate cancer with proton therapy?

Proton beam therapy’s careful targeting aims to minimise side effects on sexual function that are commonly associated with prostate cancer treatments.

While some short-term symptoms like erectile dysfunction or changes in urination may occur during and shortly after treatment, these are often manageable with medication.

Can proton beam therapy be combined with other treatments?

In some cases, prostate cancer patients being treated with proton beam therapy will need to have a course of hormone therapy as part of their treatment.

Whilst the long-term goal remains the same, to provide effective cancer treatment while minimising the impact on sexual health, hormone therapy can lead to a temporarily decreased libido and difficulty in being able to maintain an erection due to the suppression of testosterone production. Once hormonal therapy stops, sexual function and desire should return.

How can other prostate cancer treatments affect your sexual function?

The primary goal of treating prostate cancer is to eliminate cancer cells, yet this can inadvertently affect sexual function. While these effects may be temporary for some, they can persist long-term for others.

Nerve-sparing surgery aims to preserve erectile function, and precise photon radiotherapy or proton beam therapy can minimise the impact on surrounding tissues close to the prostate. All these factors are crucial when planning treatment for those concerned about sexual function.

For some patients, hormone therapy used as part of their treatment can temporarily reduce libido and make it challenging to maintain an erection due to lowered testosterone levels. However, once hormonal therapy is complete, sexual desire and libido typically return.

Get in touch for more information about proton therapy for prostate cancer

If you’ve been diagnosed with prostate cancer and are concerned about its impact on sexual function and would like a second opinion on what treatment you should have or would like to discuss your suitability for proton beam therapy, Proton International London and our team of internationally renowned oncologists are here to help.

In summary

Prostate cancer treatments, including proton beam therapy, offer hope for men diagnosed with prostate cancer as they can effectively treat the cancer while aiming to preserve important aspects of life, such as sexual function.

By understanding the treatment process, potential impacts, and available support, patients can navigate their prostate cancer journey with confidence and empowered decision-making.

Proton International London’s commitment to personalised, innovative cancer care ensures that patients receive comprehensive support tailored to their needs.

Reach out for more information and discover how proton beam therapy can be a crucial part of your prostate cancer treatment plan.

This article has been clinically reviewed by Consultant Clinical Oncologist, Dr Jason Lester. and Proton International Medical Director and Consultant Clinical Oncologist, Dr Beatrice Seddon.

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