Back to Top | Back One Page

Prostate Cancer

Prostate cancer is a disease in which cancer develops in the prostate, a gland in the male reproductive system. It occurs when cells of the prostate mutate and begin to multiply out of control. These cells may spread (metastasize) from the prostate to other parts of the body, especially the bones and lymph nodes. Prostate cancer may cause pain, difficulty in urinating, erectile dysfunction and other symptoms.

Rates of prostate cancer vary widely across the world. Although the rates vary widely between countries, it is least common in South and East Asia, more common in Europe, and most common in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, prostate cancer is least common among Asian men and most common among black men, with figures for European men in-between. However, these high rates may be affected by increasing rates of detection.

Prostate cancer develops most frequently in men over fifty. This cancer can occur only in men, as the prostate is exclusively of the male reproductive tract. It is the most common type of cancer in men in the United States, where it is responsible for more male deaths than any other cancer, except lung cancer. However, many men who develop prostate cancer never have symptoms, undergo no therapy, and eventually die of other causes. Many factors, including genetics and diet, have been implicated in the development of prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer is most often discovered by physical examination or by screening blood tests, such as the PSA (prostate specific antigen) test. There is some current concern about the accuracy of the PSA test and its usefulness. Suspected prostate cancer is typically confirmed by removing a piece of the prostate (biopsy) and examining it under a microscope. Further tests, such as X-rays and bone scans, may be performed to determine whether prostate cancer has spread.

Prostate cancer can be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, hormonal therapy, occasionally chemotherapy, proton therapy, or some combination of these. The age and underlying health of the man as well as the extent of spread, appearance under the microscope, and response of the cancer to initial treatment are important in determining the outcome of the disease. Since prostate cancer is a disease of older men, many will die of other causes before a slowly advancing prostate cancer can spread or cause symptoms. This makes treatment selection difficult. The decision whether or not to treat localized prostate cancer (a tumor that is contained within the prostate) with curative intent is a patient trade-off between the expected beneficial and harmful effects in terms of patient survival and quality of life. 


The prostate is a male reproductive organ which helps make and store seminal fluid. In adult men a typical prostate is about three centimeters long and weighs about twenty grams. It is located in the pelvis, under the urinary bladder and in front of the rectum. The prostate surrounds part of the urethra, the tube that carries urine from the bladder during urination and semen during ejaculation. Because of its location, prostate diseases often affect urination, ejaculation, and rarely defecation. The prostate contains many small glands which make about twenty percent of the fluid constituting semen.

In prostate cancer the cells of these prostate glands mutate into cancer cells. The prostate glands require male hormones, known as androgens, to work properly. Androgens include testosterone, which is made in the testes; dehydroepiandrosterone, made in the adrenal glands; and dihydrotestosterone, which is converted from testosterone within the prostate itself. Androgens are also responsible for secondary sex characteristics such as facial hair and increased muscle mass.


Early prostate cancer usually causes no symptoms. Often it is diagnosed during the workup for an elevated PSA noticed during a routine checkup. Sometimes, however, prostate cancer does cause symptoms, often similar to those of diseases such as benign prostatic hypertrophy. These include frequent urination, increased urination at night, difficulty starting and maintaining a steady stream of urine, blood in the urine, and painful urination. Prostate cancer may also cause problems with sexual function, such as difficulty achieving erection or painful ejaculation.

Advanced prostate cancer may cause additional symptoms as the disease spreads to other parts of the body. The most common symptom is bone pain, often in the vertebrae (bones of the spine), pelvis or ribs, from cancer which has spread to these bones. Prostate cancer in the spine can also compress the spinal cord, causing leg weakness and urinary and fecal incontinence. Prostate cancer is classified as an adenocarcinoma, or glandular cancer, that begins when normal semen-secreting prostate gland cells mutate into cancer cells.

The region of prostate gland where the adenocarcinoma is most common is the peripheral zone. Initially, small clumps of cancer cells remain confined to otherwise normal prostate glands, a condition known as carcinoma in situ or prostatic intraepithelial neoplasia (PIN). Although there is no proof that PIN is a cancer precursor, it is closely associated with cancer. Over time these cancer cells begin to multiply and spread to the surrounding prostate tissue (the stroma) forming a tumor. Eventually, the tumor may grow large enough to invade nearby organs such as the seminal vesicles or the rectum, or the tumor cells may develop the ability to travel in the bloodstream and lymphatic system.

Prostate cancer is considered a malignant tumor because it is a mass of cells which can invade other parts of the body. This invasion of other organs is called metastasis. Prostate cancer most commonly metastasizes to the bones, lymph nodes, rectum, and bladder. Etiology The specific causes of prostate cancer remain unknown. A man's risk of developing prostate cancer is related to his age, genetics, race, diet, lifestyle, medications, and other factors.

The primary risk factor is age. Prostate cancer is uncommon in men less than 45, but becomes more common with advancing age. The average age at the time of diagnosis is 70. However, many men never know they have prostate cancer. Autopsy studies of Chinese, German, Israeli, Jamaican, Swedish, and Ugandan men who died of other causes have found prostate cancer in thirty percent of men in their 50s, and in eighty percent of men in their 70s. In the year 2005 in the United States, there were an estimated 230,000 new cases of prostate cancer and 30,000 deaths due to prostate cancer.

A man's genetic background contributes to his risk of developing prostate cancer. This is suggested by an increased incidence of prostate cancer found in certain racial groups, in identical twins of men with prostate cancer, and in men with certain genes. In the United States, prostate cancer more commonly affects black men than white or Hispanic men, and is also more deadly in black men. Men who have a brother or father with prostate cancer have twice the usual risk of developing prostate cancer. Studies of twins in Scandinavia suggest that forty percent of prostate cancer risk can be explained by inherited factors. However, no single gene is responsible for prostate cancer; many different genes have been implicated.

Two genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) that are important risk factors for ovarian cancer and breast cancer in women have also been implicated in prostate cancer. Dietary amounts of certain foods, vitamins, and minerals can contribute to prostate cancer risk. Men with higher serum levels of the short-chain, fatty acid linoleic acid have higher rates of prostate cancer. However, the same series of studies showed that men with elevated levels of long-chain (EPA and DHA) had lowered incidence. A long-term study reports that "blood levels of trans fatty acids, in particular trans fats resulting from the hydrogenation of vegetable oils, are associated with an increased prostate cancer risk."

Other dietary factors that may increase prostate cancer risk include low intake of vitamin E (Vitamin E is found in green, leafy vegetables), lycopene (found in tomatoes), omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fishes like salmon), and the mineral selenium. A study in 2007 cast doubt on the effectiveness of lycopene (found in tomatoes) in reducing the risk of prostate cancer. Lower blood levels of vitamin D also may increase the risk of developing prostate cancer. This may be linked to lower exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, since UV light exposure can increase vitamin D in the body.

There are also some links between prostate cancer and medications, medical procedures, and medical conditions. Daily use of anti-inflammatory medicines such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen may decrease prostate cancer risk. Use of the cholesterol-lowering drugs known as the statins may also decrease prostate cancer risk.

More frequent ejaculation also may decrease a man's risk of prostate cancer. One study showed that men who ejaculated five times a week in their 20s had a decreased rate of prostate cancer, though others have shown no benefit. Infection or inflammation of the prostate (prostatitis) may increase the chance for prostate cancer. In particular, infection with the sexually transmitted infections chlamydia, gonorrhea, or syphilis seems to increase risk. Finally, obesity and elevated blood levels of testosterone may increase the risk for prostate cancer.

Research released in May 2007, found that US war veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange had a 48% increased risk of prostate cancer recurrence following surgery. Prostate cancer risk can be decreased by modifying known risk factors for prostate cancer, such as decreasing intake of animal fat. Prevention Several medications and vitamins may also help prevent prostate cancer. Two dietary supplements, vitamin E and selenium, may help prevent prostate cancer when taken daily. Estrogens from fermented soybeans and other plant sources (called phytoestrogens) may also help prevent prostate cancer. The selective estrogen receptor modulator drug toremifene has shown promise in early trials. Two medications which block the conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone, finasteride and dutasteride, have also shown some promise. As of 2006 the use of these medications for primary prevention is still in the testing phase, and they are not widely used for this purpose. The problem with these medications is that they may preferentially block the development of lower-grade prostate tumors, leading to a relatively greater chance of higher grade cancers, and negating any overall survival improvement.

Green tea may be protective (due to its polyphenol content), though the data is mixed. A 2006 study of green tea derivatives demonstrated promising prostate cancer prevention in patients at high risk for the disease. In 2003, an Australian research team led by Graham Giles of The Cancer Council Australia concluded that frequent masturbation by males appears to help prevent the development of prostate cancer. Recent research published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute suggests that taking multivitamins more than seven times a week can increase the risks of contracting the disease. This research was unable to highlight the exact vitamins responsible for this increase (almost double), although they suggest that vitamin A, vitamin E and beta-carotene may lie at its heart. It is advised that those taking multivitamins never exceed the stated daily dose on the label.

Scientists recommend a healthy, well balanced diet rich in fiber, and to reduce intake of meat. A 2007 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that men eating cauliflower, broccoli, or one of the other cruciferous vegetables, more than once a week were 40% less likely to develop prostate cancer than men who rarely ate those vegetables. Scientists believe the reason for this phenomenon has to do with a phytochemical called Diindolylmethane in these vegetables that has anti-androgenic and immune modulating properties. This compound is currently under investigation by the National Cancer Institute as a natural therapeutic for prostate cancer.


Prostate cancer screening is an attempt to find unsuspected cancers. Screening tests may lead to more specific follow-up tests such as a biopsy, where small pieces of the prostate are removed for closer study. As of 2006 prostate cancer screening options include the digital rectal exam and the prostate specific antigen (PSA) blood test. Screening for prostate cancer is controversial because it is not clear if the benefits of screening outweigh the risks of follow-up diagnostic tests and cancer treatments. Prostate cancer is a slow-growing cancer, very common among older men. In fact, most prostate cancers never grow to the point where they cause symptoms, and most men with prostate cancer die of other causes before prostate cancer has an impact on their lives. The PSA screening test may detect these small cancers that would never become life threatening. Doing the PSA test in these men may lead to overdiagnosis, including additional testing and treatment. Follow-up tests, such as prostate biopsy, may cause pain, bleeding and infection.

Prostate cancer treatments may cause urinary incontinence and erectile dysfunction. Therefore, it is essential that the risks and benefits of diagnostic procedures and treatment be carefully considered before PSA screening. Prostate cancer screening generally begins after age 50, but this can vary due to ethnic backgrounds. An example of this is African American men, who have the highest overall rate of prostate cancer. It has thus been recommended to begin screening checks at age 35, especially for African American males who have a strong family history of prostate cancer. The American Academy of Family Physicians and American College of Physicians recommend the physician discuss the risks and benefits of screening and decide based on individual patient preference. Although there is no officially recommended cutoff, many health care providers stop monitoring PSA in men who are older than 75 years old because of concern that prostate cancer therapy may do more harm than good as age progresses and life expectancy decreases.

Digital rectal examination

Digital rectal examination (DRE) is a procedure where the examiner inserts a gloved, lubricated finger into the rectum to check the size, shape, and texture of the prostate. Areas which are irregular, hard or lumpy need further evaluation, since they may contain cancer. Although the DRE only evaluates the back of the prostate, 85% of prostate cancers arise in this part of the prostate. Prostate cancer which can be felt on DRE is generally more advanced. The use of DRE has never been shown to prevent prostate cancer deaths when used as the only screening test.

Prostate specific antigen

The PSA test measures the blood level of prostate-specific antigen, an enzyme produced by the prostate. Specifically, PSA is a serine protease similar to kallikrein. Its normal function is to liquify gelatinous semen after ejaculation, allowing spermatazoa to more easily navigate through the uterine cervix.

PSA levels under 4 ng/mL (nanograms per milliliter) are generally considered normal, while levels over 4 ng/mL are considered abnormal (although in men over 65 levels up to 6.5 ng/mL may be acceptable, depending upon each laboratory's reference ranges). PSA levels between 4 and 10 ng/mL indicate a risk of prostate cancer higher than normal, but the risk does not seem to rise within this six-point range. When the PSA level is above 10 ng/mL, the association with cancer becomes stronger. However, PSA is not a perfect test. Some men with prostate cancer do not have an elevated PSA, and most men with an elevated PSA do not have prostate cancer.

PSA levels can change for many reasons other than cancer. Two common causes of high PSA levels are enlargement of the prostate (benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH)) and infection in the prostate (prostatitis). It can also be raised for 24 hours after ejaculation and several days after catheterization. PSA levels are lowered in men who use medications used to treat BPH or baldness. These medications, finasteride (marketed as Proscar or Propecia) and dutasteride (marketed as Avodart), may decrease the PSA levels by 50% or more.

Several other ways of evaluating the PSA have been developed to avoid the shortcomings of simple PSA screening.. The use of age-specific reference ranges improves the sensitivity and specificity of the test. The rate of rise of the PSA over time, called the PSA velocity, has been used to evaluate men with PSA levels between 4 and 10 ng/ml, but as of 2006, it has not proven to be an effective screening test. Comparing the PSA level with the size of the prostate, as measured by ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging, has also been studied. This comparison, called PSA density, is both costly and, as of 2006, has not proven to be an effective screening test. PSA in the blood may either be free or bound to other proteins. Measuring the amount of PSA which is free or bound may provide additional screening information, but as of 2006, questions regarding the usefulness of these measurements limit their widespread use.

When a man has symptoms of prostate cancer, or a screening test indicates an increased risk for cancer, more invasive evaluation is offered.

The only test which can fully confirm the diagnosis of prostate cancer is a biopsy, the removal of small pieces of the prostate for microscopic examination. However, prior to a biopsy, several other tools may be used to gather more information about the prostate and the urinary tract. Cystoscopy shows the urinary tract from inside the bladder, using a thin, flexible camera tube inserted down the urethra. Transrectal ultrasonography creates a picture of the prostate using sound waves from a probe in the rectum.

Prostate biopsy If cancer is suspected, a biopsy is offered. During a biopsy a urologist obtains tissue samples from the prostate via the rectum. A biopsy gun inserts and removes special hollow-core needles (usually three to six on each side of the prostate) in less than a second. Prostate biopsies are routinely done on an outpatient basis and rarely require hospitalization. Fifty-five percent of men report discomfort during prostate biopsy.

Gleason score

The tissue samples are then examined under a microscope to determine whether cancer cells are present, and to evaluate the microscopic features (or Gleason score) of any cancer found.

Tumor markers

Tissue samples can be stained for the presence of PSA and other tumor markers in order to determine the origin of malignant cells that have metastasized.

New tests being investigated

Currently, an active area of research involves non-invasive methods of prostate tumor detection. Adenoviruses modified to transfect tumor cells with harmless yet distinct genes (such as luciferase) have proven capable of early detection. So far, though, this area of research has only been tested in animal and LNCaP models.


Another potential non-invasive methods of early prostate tumor detection is through a molecular test that detects the presence of cell-associated PCA3 mRNA in urine. PCA3 mRNA is expressed almost exclusively by prostate cells and has been shown to be highly over-expressed in prostate cancer cells.

Early prostate cancer

It was reported in April 2007 that a new blood test for early prostate cancer antigen-2 (EPCA-2) is being researched that may alert men if they have prostate cancer and how aggressive it will be.

Prostate cancer staging

An important part of evaluating prostate cancer is determining the stage, or how far the cancer has spread. Knowing the stage helps define prognosis and is useful when selecting therapies. The most common system is the four-stage TNM system (abbreviated from Tumor/Nodes/Metastases). Its components include the size of the tumor, the number of involved lymph nodes, and the presence of any other metastases.

The most important distinction made by any staging system is whether or not the cancer is still confined to the prostate. In the TNM system, clinical T1 and T2 cancers are found only in the prostate, while T3 and T4 cancers have spread elsewhere. Several tests can be used to look for evidence of spread. These include computed tomography to evaluate spread within the pelvis, bone scans to look for spread to the bones, and endorectal coil magnetic resonance imaging to closely evaluate the prostatic capsule and the seminal vesicles. Bone scans should reveal osteoblastic appearance due to increased bone density in the areas of bone metastasis - opposite to what is found in many other cancers that metastasize.

After a prostate biopsy, a pathologist looks at the samples under a microscope. If cancer is present, the pathologist reports the grade of the tumor. The grade tells how much the tumor tissue differs from normal prostate tissue and suggests how fast the tumor is likely to grow. The Gleason system is used to grade prostate tumors from 2 to 10, where a Gleason score of 10 indicates the most abnormalities. The pathologist assigns a number from 1 to 5 for the most common pattern observed under the microscope, then does the same for the second most common pattern. The sum of these two numbers is the Gleason score. The Whitmore-Jewett stage is another method sometimes used. Proper grading of the tumor is critical, since the grade of the tumor is one of the major factors used to determine the treatment recommendation.

Risk assessment

Many prostate cancers are not destined to be lethal, and most men will ultimately die from causes other than of the disease. Decisions about treatment type and timing may therefore be informed by an estimation of the risk that the tumor will ultimately recur after treatment and/or progress to metastases and mortality. Several tools are available to help predict outcomes such as pathologic stage and recurrence after surgery or radiation therapy. Most combine stage, grade, and PSA level, and some also add the number or percent of biopsy cores positive, age, and/or other information.

The D’Amico classification stratifies men to low, intermediate, or high risk based on stage, grade, and PSA. It is used widely in clinical practice and research settings. The major downside to the 3-level system is that it does not account for multiple adverse parameters (e.g., high Gleason score and high PSA) in stratifying patients.

The Partin tables predict pathologic outcomes (margin status, extraprostatic extension, and seminal vesicle invasion) based on the same 3 variables, and are published as lookup tables.

The Kattan nomograms predict recurrence after surgery and/or radiation therapy, based on data available either at time of diagnosis or after surgery. The nomograms can be calculated using paper graphs, or using software available on a website or for handheld computers. The Kattan score represents the likelihood of remaining free of disease at a given time interval following treatment.

The UCSF Cancer of the Prostate Risk Assessment (CAPRA) score predicts both pathologic status and recurrence after surgery. It offers comparable accuracy as the Kattan preoperative nomogram, and can be calculated without paper tables or a calculator. Points are assigned based on PSA, Grade, stage, age, and percent of cores positive; the sum yields a 0–10 score, with every 2 points representing roughly a doubling of risk of recurrence. The CAPRA score was derived from community-based data in the CaPSURE database.


Treatment for prostate cancer may involve watchful waiting, surgery, radiation therapy, High Intensity Focused Ultrasound (HIFU), chemotherapy, cryosurgery, hormonal therapy, or some combination. Which option is best depends on the stage of the disease, the Gleason score, and the PSA level. Other important factors are the man's age, his general health, and his feelings about potential treatments and their possible side effects. Because all treatments can have significant side effects, such as erectile dysfunction and urinary incontinence, treatment discussions often focus on balancing the goals of therapy with the risks of lifestyle alterations.

The selection of treatment options may be a complex decision involving many factors. For example, radical prostatectomy after primary radiation failure is a very technically challenging surgery and may not be an option. This may enter into the treatment decision.

If the cancer has spread beyond the prostate, treatment options significantly change, so most doctors who treat prostate cancer use a variety of nomograms to predict the probability of spread. Treatment by watchful waiting, HIFU, radiation therapy, cryosurgery, and surgery are generally offered to men whose cancer remains within the prostate. Hormonal therapy and chemotherapy are often reserved for disease which has spread beyond the prostate. However, there are exceptions: radiation therapy may be used for some advanced tumors, and hormonal therapy is used for some early stage tumors. Cryotherapy, hormonal therapy, and chemotherapy may also be offered if initial treatment fails and the cancer progresses.

Watchful waiting and active surveillance

Watchful waiting, also called "active surveillance," refers to observation and regular monitoring without invasive treatment. Watchful waiting is often used when an early stage, slow-growing prostate cancer is found in an older man. Watchful waiting may also be suggested when the risks of surgery, radiation therapy, or hormonal therapy outweigh the possible benefits. Other treatments can be started if symptoms develop, or if there are signs that the cancer growth is accelerating (e.g., rapidly rising PSA, increase in Gleason score on repeat biopsy, etc.). Most men who choose watchful waiting for early stage tumors eventually have signs of tumor progression, and they may need to begin treatment within three years.

Although men who choose watchful waiting avoid the risks of surgery and radiation, the risk of metastasis (spread of the cancer) may be increased. For younger men, a trial of active surveillance may not mean avoiding treatment altogether, but may reasonably allow a delay of a few years or more, during which time the quality of life impact of active treatment can be avoided. Published data to date suggest that carefully selected men will not miss a window for cure with this approach. Additional health problems that develop with advancing age during the observation period can also make it harder to undergo surgery and radiation therapy.

Clinically insignificant prostate tumors are often found by accident when a doctor incorrectly orders a biopsy not following the recommended guidelines (abnormal DRE and elevated PSA). The urologist must check that the PSA is not elevated for other reasons, Prostatitis, etc. An annual biopsy is often recommended by a urologist for a patient who has selected watchful waiting when the tumor is clinically insignificant (no abnormal DRE or PSA). The tumors tiny size can be monitored this way and the patient can decide to have surgery only if the tumor enlarges which may take many years or never.


Surgical removal of the prostate, or prostatectomy, is a common treatment either for early stage prostate cancer, or for cancer which has failed to respond to radiation therapy. The most common type is radical retropubic prostatectomy, when the surgeon removes the prostate through an abdominal incision. Another type is radical perineal prostatectomy, when the surgeon removes the prostate through an incision in the perineum, the skin between the scrotum and anus. Radical prostatectomy can also be performed laparoscopically, through a series of small (1cm) incisions in the abdomen, with or without the assistance of a surgical robot.

Radical prostatectomy is effective for tumors which have not spread beyond the prostate; cure rates depend on risk factors such as PSA level and Gleason grade. However, it may cause nerve damage that significantly alters the quality of life of the prostate cancer survivor. The most common serious complications are loss of urinary control and impotence. Reported rates of both complications vary widely depending on how they are assessed, by whom, and how long after surgery, as well as the setting (e.g., academic series vs. community-based or population-based data). Although penile sensation and the ability to achieve orgasm usually remain intact, erection and ejaculation are often impaired. Medications such as sildenafil (Viagra), tadalafil (Cialis), or vardenafil (Levitra) may restore some degree of potency. For most men with organ-confined disease, a more limited "nerve-sparing" technique may help avoid urinary incontinence and impotence.

Radical prostatectomy has traditionally been used alone when the cancer is small. In the event of positive margins or locally advanced disease found on pathology, adjuvant radiation therapy may offer improved survival. Surgery may also be offered when a cancer is not responding to radiation therapy. However, because radiation therapy causes tissue changes, prostatectomy after radiation has a higher risk of complications.

Transurethral resection of the prostate, commonly called a "TURP," is a surgical procedure performed when the tube from the bladder to the penis (urethra) is blocked by prostate enlargement. TURP is generally for benign disease and is not meant as definitive treatment for prostate cancer. During a TURP, a small tube (cystoscope) is placed into the penis and the blocking prostate is cut away.

In metastatic disease, where cancer has spread beyond the prostate, removal of the testicles (called orchiectomy) may be done to decrease testosterone levels and control cancer growth. (See hormonal therapy, below).

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy, also known as radiotherapy, uses ionizing radiation to kill prostate cancer cells. When absorbed in tissue, Ionizing radiation such as Gamma and x-rays damage the DNA in cells, which increases the probability of apoptosis (cell death). Two different kinds of radiation therapy are used in prostate cancer treatment: external beam radiation therapy and brachytherapy.

External beam radiation therapy uses a linear accelerator to produce high-energy x-rays which are directed in a beam towards the prostate. A technique called Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT) may be used to adjust the radiation beam to conform with the shape of the tumor, allowing higher doses to be given to the prostate and seminal vesicles with less damage to the bladder and rectum. External beam radiation therapy is generally given over several weeks, with daily visits to a radiation therapy center. New types of radiation therapy may have fewer side effects then traditional treatment, one of these is Tomotherapy.

Permanent implant brachytherapy is a popular treatment choice for patients with low to intermediate risk features, can be performed on an outpatient basis, and is associated with good 10-year outcomes with relatively low morbidity. It involves the placement of about 100 small "seeds" containing radioactive material (such as iodine-125 or palladium-103) with a needle through the skin of the perineum directly into the tumor while under spinal or general anesthetic. These seeds emit lower-energy X-rays which are only able to travel a short distance. Although the seeds eventually become inert, they remain in the prostate permanently. The risk of exposure to others from men with implanted seeds is generally accepted to be insignificant.

Radiation therapy is commonly used in prostate cancer treatment. It may be used instead of surgery for early cancers, and it may also be used in advanced stages of prostate cancer to treat painful bone metastases. Radiation treatments also can be combined with hormonal therapy for intermediate risk disease, when radiation therapy alone is less likely to cure the cancer. Some radiation oncologists combine external beam radiation and brachytherapy for intermediate to high risk situations. One study found that the combination of six months of androgen suppressive therapy combined with external beam radiation had improved survival compared to radiation alone in patients with localized prostate cancer. Others use a "triple modality" combination of external beam radiation therapy, brachytherapy, and hormonal therapy.

Less common applications for radiotherapy are when cancer is compressing the spinal cord, or sometimes after surgery, such as when cancer is found in the seminal vesicles, in the lymph nodes, outside the prostate capsule, or at the margins of the biopsy.

Radiation therapy is often offered to men whose medical problems make surgery more risky. Radiation therapy appears to cure small tumors that are confined to the prostate just about as well as surgery. However, as of 2006 some issues remain unresolved, such as whether radiation should be given to the rest of the pelvis, how much the absorbed dose should be, and whether hormonal therapy should be given at the same time.

Side effects of radiation therapy might occur after a few weeks into treatment. Both types of radiation therapy may cause diarrhea and rectal bleeding due to radiation proctitis, as well as urinary incontinence and impotence. Symptoms tend to improve over time. Men who have undergone external beam radiation therapy will have a higher risk of later developing colon cancer and bladder cancer.


Cryosurgery is another method of treating prostate cancer. It is less invasive than radical prostatectomy, and general anesthesia is less commonly used. Under ultrasound guidance, a method invented by Dr. Gary Onik, metal rods are inserted through the skin of the perineum into the prostate. Highly purified Argon gas is used to cool the rods, freezing the surrounding tissue at -196 ̊C (-320 ̊F). As the water within the prostate cells freeze, the cells die. The urethra is protected from freezing by a catheter filled with warm liquid. Cryosurgery generally causes fewer problems with urinary control than other treatments, but impotence occurs up to ninety percent of the time. When used as the initial treatment for prostate cancer and in the hands of an experienced cryosurgeon. Cryosurgery has a 10 year biochemical disease-free rate superior to all other treatments including radical prostatectomy and any form of radiation. Cryosurgery has also been demonstrated to be superior to radical prostatectomy for recurrent cancer following radiation therapy.

Hormonal therapy

Hormonal therapy uses medications or surgery to block prostate cancer cells from getting dihydrotestosterone (DHT), a hormone produced in the prostate and required for the growth and spread of most prostate cancer cells. Blocking DHT often causes prostate cancer to stop growing and even shrink. However, hormonal therapy rarely cures prostate cancer because cancers which initially respond to hormonal therapy typically become resistant after one to two years. Hormonal therapy is therefore usually used when cancer has spread from the prostate. It may also be given to certain men undergoing radiation therapy or surgery to help prevent return of their cancer.

Hormonal therapy for prostate cancer targets the pathways the body uses to produce DHT. A feedback loop involving the testicles, the hypothalamus, and the pituitary, adrenal, and prostate glands controls the blood levels of DHT. First, low blood levels of DHT stimulate the hypothalamus to produce gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH). GnRH then stimulates the pituitary gland to produce luteinizing hormone (LH), and LH stimulates the testicles to produce testosterone. Finally, testosterone from the testicles and dehydroepiandrosterone from the adrenal glands stimulate the prostate to produce more DHT. Hormonal therapy can decrease levels of DHT by interrupting this pathway at any point.

There are several forms of hormonal therapy:

       Orchiectomy is surgery to remove the testicles. Because the testicles make most of the body's testosterone, after orchiectomy testosterone levels drop. Now the prostate not only lacks the testosterone stimulus to produce DHT, but also it does not have enough testosterone to transform into DHT.
Antiandrogens are medications such as flutamide, bicalutamide, nilutamide, and cyproterone acetate which directly block the actions of testosterone and DHT within prostate cancer cells.
Medications which block the production of adrenal androgens such as DHEA include ketoconazole and aminoglutethimide. Because the adrenal glands only make about 5% of the body's androgens, these medications are generally used only in combination with other methods that can block the 95% of androgens made by the testicles. These combined methods are called total androgen blockade (TAB). TAB can also be achieved using antiandrogens.
GnRH action can be interrupted in one of two ways. GnRH antagonists suppress the production of LH directly, while GnRH agonists suppress LH through the process of downregulation after an initial stimulation effect. Abarelix is an example of a GnRH antagonist, while the GnRH agonists include leuprolide, goserelin, triptorelin, and buserelin. Initially, GnRH agonists increase the production of LH. However, because the constant supply of the medication does not match the body's natural production rhythm, production of both LH and GnRH decreases after a few weeks.

As of 2006 the most successful hormonal treatments are orchiectomy and GnRH agonists. Despite their higher cost, GnRH agonists are often chosen over orchiectomy for cosmetic and emotional reasons. Eventually, total androgen blockade may prove to be better than orchiectomy or GnRH agonists used alone.

Each treatment has disadvantages which limit its use in certain circumstances. Although orchiectomy is a low-risk surgery, the psychological impact of removing the testicles can be significant. The loss of testosterone also causes hot flashes, weight gain, loss of libido, enlargement of the breasts (gynecomastia), impotence and osteoporosis. GnRH agonists eventually cause the same side effects as orchiectomy but may cause worse symptoms at the beginning of treatment. When GnRH agonists are first used, testosterone surges can lead to increased bone pain from metastatic cancer, so antiandrogens or abarelix are often added to blunt these side effects. Estrogens are not commonly used because they increase the risk for cardiovascular disease and blood clots. The antiandrogens do not generally cause impotence and usually cause less loss of bone and muscle mass. Ketoconazole can cause liver damage with prolonged use, and aminoglutethimide can cause skin rashes.

Palliative care

Palliative care for advanced stage prostate cancer focuses on extending life and relieving the symptoms of metastatic disease. Chemotherapy may be offered to slow disease progression and postpone symptoms. The most commonly used regimen combines the chemotherapeutic drug docetaxel with a corticosteroid such as prednisone. Bisphosphonates such as zoledronic acid have been shown to delay skeletal complications such as fractures or the need for radiation therapy in patients with hormone-refractory metastatic prostate cancer.

Bone pain due to metastatic disease is treated with opioid pain relievers such as morphine and oxycodone. External beam radiation therapy directed at bone metastases may provide pain relief. Injections of certain radioisotopes, such as strontium-89, phosphorus-32, or samarium-153, also target bone metastases and may help relieve pain.

High Intensity Focused Ultrasound (HIFU)

HIFU for prostate cancer utilizes high intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) to ablate/destroy the tissue of the prostate. During the HIFU procedure, sound waves are used to heat the prostate tissue thus destroying the cancerous cells. Essentially, ultrasonic waves are precisely focused on specific areas of the prostate to eliminate the prostate cancer with minimal risks of effecting other tissue or organs. Temperatures at the focal point of the sound waves can exceed 100oC. In lay terms, the HIFU technology is similar to using a magnifying glass to burn a piece of paper by focusing sunlight at a small precise point on the sheet. The ability to focus the ultrasonic waves leads to a relatively low occurrence of both incontinence and impotence. (0.6% and 0-20%, respectively) According to international studies, when compared to other procedures, HIFU has a high success rate with a reduced risk of side effects. Studies using the Sonablate 500 HIFU machine have shown that 94% of patients with a pretreatment PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) of less than 10g/ml were cancer-free after three years. However, many studies of HIFU were performed by manufacturers of HIFU devices, or members of manufacturers' advisory panels.

HIFU was first used in the 1940’s and 1950’s in efforts to destroy tumors in the central nervous system. Since then, HIFU has been shown to be effective at destroying malignant tissue in the brain, prostate, spleen, liver, kidney, breast, and bone. Today, the HIFU procedure for prostate cancer is performed using a transrectal probe. This procedure has been performed for over ten years and is currently approved for use in Japan, Europe, Canada, and parts of Central and South America.

Although not yet approved for use in the Unites States, many patients have received the HIFU procedure at facilities in Canada, and Central and South America. Currently, therapy is available using the Sonablate 500 or the Ablatherm. The Sonablate 500 is designed by Focus Surgery of Indianapolis, Indiana and is used in international HIFU centers around the world. Prognosis Prostate cancer rates are higher and prognosis poorer in Western societies than the rest of the world.


Many of the risk factors for prostate cancer are more prevalent in the Western world, including longer life expectancy and diets high in red meat and dairy products. Also, where there is more access to screening programs, there is a higher detection rate. Prostate cancer is the ninth most common cancer in the world, but is the number one non-skin cancer in United States men. Prostate cancer affected eighteen percent of American men and caused death in three percent in 2005. In Japan, death from prostate cancer was one-fifth to one-half the rates in the United States and Europe in the 1990s. In India in the 1990s, half of the people with prostate cancer confined to the prostate died within ten years. African-American men have 50–60 times more prostate cancer and prostate cancer deaths than men in Shanghai, China. In Nigeria, two percent of men develop prostate cancer and 64% of them are dead after two years. In patients who undergo treatment, the most important clinical prognostic indicators of disease outcome are stage, pre-therapy PSA level and Gleason score. In general, the higher the grade and the stage, the poorer the prognosis. Nomograms can be used to calculate the estimated risk of the individual patient. 

The predictions are based on the experience of large groups of patients suffering from cancers at various stages. Progression In 1941, Charles Huggins reported that androgen ablation therapy causes regression of primary and metastatic androgen-dependent prostate cancer. However, it is now known that 80–90% of prostate cancer patients develop androgen-independent tumors 12–33 months after androgen ablation therapy, leading to a median overall survival of 23–37 months from the time of initiation of androgen ablation therapy. The actual mechanism contributes to the progression of prostate cancer is not clear and may vary between individual patient. A few possible mechanisms have be proposed. Scientists have established a few prostate cancer cell lines to investigate the mechanism involved in the progression of prostate cancer. LNCaP, PC-3, and DU-145 are commonly used prostate cancer cell lines. The LNCaP cancer cell line was established from a human lymph node metastatic lesion of prostatic adenocarcinoma. PC-3 and DU-145 cells were established from human prostatic adenocarcinoma metastatic to bone and to brain, respectively. LNCaP cells express androgen receptor (AR), however, PC-3 and DU-145 cells express very little or no AR. AR, an androgen-activated transcription factor, belongs to the steroid nuclear receptor family.

Development of the prostate is dependent on androgen signaling mediated through AR, and AR is also important during the development of prostate cancer. The proliferation of LNCaP cells is androgen-dependent but the proliferation of PC-3 and DU-145 cells is androgen-insensitive. Elevation of AR expression is often observed in advanced prostate tumors in patients. Some androgen-independent LNCaP sublines have been developed from the ATCC androgen-dependent LNCaP cells after androgen deprivation for study of prostate cancer progression. These androgen-independent LNCaP cells have elevated AR expression and express prostate specific antigen upon androgen treatment. Androgens paradoxically inhibit the proliferation of these androgen-independent prostate cancer cells. Androgen at a concentration of 10-fold higher than the physiological concentration has also been shown to cause growth suppression and reversion of androgen-independent prostate cancer xenografts or androgen-independent prostate tumors derived in vivo model to an androgen-stimulated phenotype in athymic mice. These observation suggest the possibility to use androgen to treat the development of relapsed androgen-independent prostate tumors in patients. Oral infusion of green tea polyphenols, a potential alternative therapy for prostate cancer by natural compounds, has been shown to inhibit the development, progression, and metastasis as well in autochthonous transgenic adenocarcinoma of the mouse prostate (TRAMP) model, which spontaneously develops prostate cancer.


Although the prostate was first described by Venetian anatomist Niccolò Massa in 1536, and illustrated by Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius in 1538, prostate cancer was not identified until 1853. Prostate cancer was initially considered a rare disease, probably because of shorter life expectancies and poorer detection methods in the 19th century. The first treatments of prostate cancer were surgeries to relieve urinary obstruction. Removal of the entire gland (radical perineal prostatectomy) was first performed in 1904 by Hugh H. Young at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Surgical removal of the testes (orchiectomy) to treat prostate cancer was first performed in the 1890s, but with limited success. Transurethral resection of the prostate (TURP) replaced radical prostatectomy for symptomatic relief of obstruction in the middle of the 20th century because it could better preserve penile erectile function. Radical retropubic prostatectomy was developed in 1983 by Patrick Walsh. This surgical approach allowed for removal of the prostate and lymph nodes with maintenance of penile function.

In 1941 Charles B. Huggins published studies in which he used estrogen to oppose testosterone production in men with metastatic prostate cancer. This discovery of "chemical castration" won Huggins the 1966 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The role of the hormone GnRH in reproduction was determined by Andrzej W. Schally and Roger Guillemin, who both won the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this work. Receptor agonists, such as leuprolide and goserelin, were subsequently developed and used to treat prostate cancer.

Radiation therapy for prostate cancer was first developed in the early 20th century and initially consisted of intraprostatic radium implants. External beam radiation became more popular as stronger radiation sources became available in the middle of the 20th century. Brachytherapy with implanted seeds was first described in 1983. Systemic chemotherapy for prostate cancer was first studied in the 1970s. The initial regimen of cyclophosphamide and 5-fluorouracil was quickly joined by multiple regimens using a host of other systemic chemotherapy drugs.

Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer is a malignant tumor (a kind of neoplasm) located on an ovary. Although many ovarian tumors are benign, most have the potential to become malignant unless treated.


Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer death in women, the leading cause of death from gynecological malignancy, and the second most commonly diagnosed gynecologic malignancy . It is idiopathic, meaning that the exact cause is usually unknown. The disease is more common in industrialized nations, with the exception of Japan. In the United States, females have a 1.4% to 2.5%  (1 out of 40-60 women) lifetime chance of developing ovarian cancer. Older women are at highest risk. More than half of the deaths from ovarian cancer occur in women between 55 and 74 years of age and approximately one quarter of ovarian cancer deaths occur in women between 35 and 54 years of age.

 The risk for developing ovarian cancer appears to be affected by several factors. The more children a woman has, the lower her risk of ovarian cancer. Early age at first pregnancy, older ages of final pregnancy and the use of low dose hormonal contraception have also been shown to have a protective effect. Ovarian cancer is reduced in women after tubal ligation.

The link to the use of fertility medication, such as Clomiphene citrate, has been controversial. An analysis in 1991 raised the possibility that use of drugs may increase the risk for ovarian cancer. Several cohort studies and case-control studies have been conducted since then without providing conclusive evidence for such a link. It will remain a complex topic to study as the infertile population differs in parity from the "normal" population.

There is good evidence that in some women genetic factors are important. Carriers of certain mutations of the BRCA1 or the BRCA2 gene, more frequent in some populations (e.g. Ashkenazi Jewish women) are at a higher risk of both breast cancer and ovarian cancer, often at an earlier age than the general population. Patients with a personal history of breast cancer or a family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer, especially if at a young age, may have an elevated risk. A strong family history of uterine cancer, colon cancer, or other gastrointestinal cancers may indicate the presence of a syndrome known as hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC, also known as Lynch II syndrome), which confers a higher risk for developing ovarian cancer.

Patients with strong genetic risk for ovarian cancer may consider the use of prophylactic oophorectomy after completion of child-bearing. A Swedish study, which followed more than 61,000 women for 13 years, has found a significant link between milk consumption and ovarian cancer. According to the BBC, "[Researchers] found that milk had the strongest link with ovarian cancer - those women who drank two or more glasses a day were at double the risk of those who did not consume it at all, or only in small amounts." Recent studies have shown that women in sunnier countries have a lower rate of ovarian cancer, which may have some kind of connection with exposure to Vitamin D. Other factors that have been investigated, such as talc use, asbestos exposure, high dietary fat content, and childhood mumps infection, are controversial and have not been definitively proven. "Associations were also found between alcohol consumption and cancers of the ovary and prostate, but only for 50 g and 100 g a day."


Ovarian tumors can be classified by their presumed cell of origin. The main categories are: 

       surface epithelial-stromal tumors
sex cord-stromal tumors (ICD-O 8590)
germ cell tumors (ICD-O 9060-9090)
secondary or metastatic tumors


Ovarian cancer is classified according to the histology of the tumor (ICD-O codes). Histology dictates many aspects of clinical treatment, management, and prognosis.

       Surface epithelial-stromal tumors are the most common and prototypic ovarian cancers. They are thought to originate from the ovarian surface lining, and include serous cystadenocarcinoma (8441/3), and mucinous cystadenocarcinoma (8470/3). The abdominal cavity is lined with the same cells that make up the ovarian surface lining, and it is possible to have cancer begin there, in which case, it is called primary peritoneal cancer. Treatment, however, is basically the same as treatment for ovarian cancer.
Sex cord-stromal tumors (8590) include lesions that are hormonally active such as the estrogen-producing granulosa cell tumor (8620/3) and the virilizing Sertoli-Leydig cell tumor or arrhenoblastoma.
Germ cell tumors (9060-9090) of the ovary originate from germ cells and tend to occur in young women and girls. These tumors represent approximately 5% of ovarian cancers. They tend to be well encapsulated and many are benign, hence prognosis than for other ovarian tumors.
mixed tumors
secondary or metastatic tumors

Natural history

Ovarian cancer often is primary, but can also be secondary, the result of metastasis from primary cancers elsewhere in the body. For example, from breast cancer, or from gastrointestinal cancer (in which case the ovarian cancer is a Krukenberg cancer).

Studies on the accuracy of symptoms

Two case-control studies, both subject to results being inflated by spectrum bias, have been reported. The first found that women with ovarian cancer had symptoms of increased abdominal size, bloating, urinary urgency, and pelvic pain. The smaller, second study found that women with ovarian cancer had pelvic/abdominal pain, increased abdominal size/bloating, and difficulty eating/feeling full. The latter study created a symptom index that was considered positive if any of the 6 symptoms "occurred >12 times per month but were present for <1 year". They reported a sensitivity of 57% for early-stage disease and specificity 87% to 90%.

Ovarian Cancer Symptoms Consensus Statement

In 2007, the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation, Society of Gynecologic Oncologists and American Cancer Society originated the following consensus statement regarding the symptoms of ovarian cancer. Historically ovarian cancer was called the “silent killer” because symptoms were not thought to develop until the chance of cure was poor. However, recent studies have shown this term is untrue and that the following symptoms are much more likely to occur in women with ovarian cancer than women in the general population. These symptoms include:

Pelvic or abdominal pain
Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)

Women with ovarian cancer report that symptoms are persistent and represent a change from normal for their bodies. The frequency and/or number of such symptoms are key factors in the diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Several studies show that even early stage ovarian cancer can produce these symptoms. Women who have these symptoms almost daily for more than a few weeks should see their doctor, preferably a gynecologist. Prompt medical evaluation may lead to detection at the earliest possible stage of the disease. Early stage diagnosis is associated with an improved prognosis.

Several other symptoms have been commonly reported by women with ovarian cancer. These symptoms include fatigue, indigestion, back pain, pain with intercourse, constipation and menstrual irregularities. However, these other symptoms are not as useful in identifying ovarian cancer because they are also found in equal frequency in women in the general population who do not have ovarian cancer.


Ovarian cancer at its early stages (I/II) is difficult to diagnose until it spreads and advances to later stages (III/IV). This is due to the fact that most of the common symptoms are non-specific. When an ovarian malignancy is included in the list of diagnostic possibilities, a limited number of laboratory tests are indicated. A complete blood count (CBC) and serum electrolyte test should be obtained in all patients. Coagulation tests are not indicated in the absence of a suggestive history of bleeding after minor trauma or increased bruisability. Similarly, routine liver function tests are rarely helpful.

The serum hCG level should be measured in any female in whom pregnancy is a possibility. In addition, a serum AFP and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) should be measured in young girls and adolescents who present with adnexal masses because the younger the patient, the greater the likelihood of a malignant germ cell tumor.

The blood test called CA-125 is useful in differential diagnosis and in follow up of the disease, but it has not been shown to be an effective method to screen for early-stage ovarian cancer and is currently not recommended for this use.

Other blood tests are currently under investigation. For example, a study funded by the American Cancer Society conducted at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute has found a correlation between high levels of lysophospholipids (a type of lipid) with ovarian cancer patients and low levels of lysophospholipids with healthy women. This potential biomarker can be detected by a simple blood test. The blood test was 93% accurate as predictor of ovarian cancer with less than 4% false positives of the 117 women studied. As with CA-125, this blood test has not been incorporated into standard practice for diagnosing ovarian cancer.

Current research is looking at ways to combine tumor markers along with other indicators of disease (i.e. radiology and/or symptoms) to improve accuracy. The challenge in such an approach is that the very low population prevalence of ovarian cancer means that even testing with very high sensitivity and specificity will still lead to unacceptable numbers of false positive results (i.e. performing surgical procedures in which cancer is not found intra-operatively). This is exemplified by the recent discovery of proteomic predictors that showed 100% sensitivity and 95% specificity.

A pelvic examination, including CT scan, trans-vaginal ultrasound, is also of utility. Physical examination may reveal increased abdominal girth and /or ascites (fluid within the abdominal cavity). Pelvic examination may reveal an ovarian or abdominal mass. The pelvic exam can include a rectovaginal component for better palpation of the ovaries. For very young patients, magnetic resonance imaging may be preferred to rectal and vaginal examination.


Ovarian cancer staging is by the FIGO staging system and uses information obtained after surgery, which can include a total abdominal hysterectomy, removal of (usually) both ovaries and fallopian tubes, (usually) the omentum, and pelvic (peritoneal) washings for cytology. The AJCC stage is the same as the FIGO stage.


Stage I - limited to one or both ovaries

IA - involves one ovary; capsule intact; no tumor on ovarian surface; no malignant cells in ascites or peritoneal washings

IB - involves both ovaries; capsule intact; no tumor on ovarian surface; negative washings

IC - tumor limited to ovaries with any of the following: capsule ruptured, tumor on ovarian surface, positive washings

Stage II - pelvic extension or implants

IIA - extension or implants onto uterus or fallopian tube; negative washings

IIB - extension or implants onto other pelvic structures; negative washings

IIC - pelvic extension or implants with positive peritoneal washings

Stage III - microscopic peritoneal implants outside of the pelvis; or limited to the pelvis with extension to the small bowel or omentum

IIIA - microscopic peritoneal metastases beyond pelvis

IIIB - macroscopic peritoneal metastases beyond pelvis less than 2 cm in size

IIIC - peritoneal metastases beyond pelvis > 2 cm or lymph node metastases

Stage IV - distant metastases--in the liver, or outside the peritoneal cavity

Para-aortic lymph node metastases are considered regional lymph nodes (Stage IIIC).


Surgery is the preferred treatment and is frequently necessary for differential diagnosis via histology. Studies have shown that surgery performed by a specialist in gynecologic oncology usually result in an improved outlook. Improved survival is attributed to more accurate staging of the disease and a higher rate of aggressive surgical excision of tumor in the abdomen by gynecologic oncologists as opposed to general gynecologists and general surgeons.

The type of surgery depends upon how widespread the cancer is when diagnosed (the cancer stage), as well as the type and grade of cancer. The surgeon may remove one (unilateral oophorectomy) or both ovaries (bilateral oophorectomy), the fallopian tubes (salpingectomy), and the uterus (hysterectomy). For some very early tumors (stage 1, low grade or low-risk disease), only the involved ovary and fallopian tube will be removed (called a "unilateral salpingo-oophorectomy," USO), especially in young females who wish to preserve their fertility. In advanced disease as much tumor as possible is removed (debulking surgery). In cases where this type of surgery is successful, the prognosis is improved compared to patients where large tumor masses (more than 1 cm in diameter) are left behind.

Chemotherapy is used after surgery to treat any residual disease, if appropriate. This depends on the histology of the tumor; some kinds of tumor (particularly teratoma) are not sensitive to chemotherapy. At present many oncologists are still recommending systemic chemotherapy including a platinum derivative with a taxane as a preferred method of treating advanced ovarian cancer. However, randomized, multicenter clinical trials are beginning to clearly show that Intra-peritoneal chemotherapy produces longer survival times. As this therapy may not always be available in local hospitals, women should consult doctors based in nationally recognized centers as soon after diagnosis as possible in order to select the most effective treatment plan. Chemotherapy can also be used to treat women who have a recurrence.

Three large randomized studies of the Gynecologic Oncology Group have suggested that chemotherapy regimens delivered partly via direct infusion into the abdominal cavity (intraperitoneal or "IP") improve median survival time over regimens that are only given intravenously (in the vein or "IV"). Reported toxicities are generally higher and the advantages of IP chemotherapy are still debated among specialists.

Radiation therapy is not effective for advanced stages because when vital organs are in the radiation field, a high dose cannot be safely delivered.

Pre-clinical chemosensitivity and chemoresistance testing is being done by laboratories in the USA, Europe, and Asia.

Immunotherapy, such as the therapeutic vaccine Abagovomab - which is currently under experimental clinical evaluation in the MIMOSA study - might represent an innovative approach as consolidation therapy for the prevention of recurrences of ovarian cancer.


Ovarian cancer has a poor prognosis. It is disproportionately deadly because symptoms are vague and non-specific, hence diagnosis is late. More than 60% of patients presenting with this cancer already have stage III or stage IV cancer, when it has already spread beyond the ovaries.

Ovarian cancers that are malignant shed cells into the naturally occurring fluid within the abdominal cavity. These cells can implant on other abdominal (peritoneal) structures included the uterus, urinary bladder, bowel, lining of the bowel wall (omentum) and can even spread to the lungs. These cells can begin forming new tumor growths before cancer is even suspected.

More than 50% of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed in the advanced stages of the disease because no cost-effective screening test for ovarian cancer exists. The five year survival rate for all stages is only 35% to 38%. If, however, diagnosis is made early in the disease, five-year survival rates can reach 90% to 98%.

Germ cell tumors of the ovary have a much better prognosis than other ovarian cancers, in part because they tend to grow rapidly to a very large size, hence they are detected sooner.



spread of the cancer to other organs

progressive function loss of various organs

ascites (fluid in the abdomen)

Intestinal obstruction


Cancer Research

Cancer research is research into cancer in order to identify causes and develop strategies for prevention, diagnosis, treatments and cure.

Cancer research ranges from epidemiology, molecular bioscience (bench research) to the performance of clinical trials to evaluate and compare applications of the various cancer treatment. These applications include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and hormone therapy, and combined treatment modalities such as chemo-radiotherapy. Starting in the mid-1990s, the emphasis in clinical cancer research shifted towards therapies derived from biotechnology research, such as immunotherapy and gene therapy.


This type of research involves many different disciplines including genetics, diet, environmental factors (ie chemical carcinogens).

Genes involved in cancer

As the Cancer Genome Project stated in a 2004 review article, "a central aim of cancer research has been to identify the mutated genes that are causally implicated in oncogenesis (cancer genes)."

Several hereditary factors can increase the chance of cancer-causing mutations, including the activation of oncogenes or the inhibition of tumor suppressor genes. The functions of various onco- and tumor suppressor genes can be disrupted at different stages of tumor progression. Mutations in such genes can be used to classify the malignancy of a tumor.

In later stages, tumors can develop a resistance to cancer treatment. The identification of oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes is important to understand tumor progression and treatment success.

Genes and protein products that have been identified by at least two independent publications as being involved in cancer are: ABI1, ABL2, ACSL6, AF1Q, AF5Q31 (also known as MCEF), AKT1, ARNT, ASPSCR1, ATF1, ATIC, BCL10, BFHD, BIRC3, BMPR1A, BTG1, CBFA2T1, CBFA2T3, CBFB, CCND1, CDC2, CDK4, CHIC2, CHN1, COPEB, COX6C, CTNNB1, CYLD, DDB2, DDIT3, DEK, EIF4A2, EPS15, ERCC2, ERCC3, ERCC5, ERG, ETV4, ETV6, EWSR1, EXT1, EXT2, FANCC, FANCG, FGFR1OP, FGFR3, FH, FIP1L1, FUS, GAS7, GATA1, GMPS, GOLGA5, GPC, GPHN, HIST1H4I, HRAS, HSPCA, IL21R, IRF4, KRAS2, LASP1, LCP1, LHFP, LMO2, LYL1, MADH4, MLF1, MLH1, MLLT3, MLLT6, MNAT1, MSF, MSH2, MSN, MUTYH, MYC, NCOA4, NF2, NPM1, NRAS, PAX8, PCBD, PDGFB, PIM1, PLK2, PNUTL1, POU2F1, PPARG, PRCC, PRKACB, PRKAR1A, PTEN, PTPN11, RABEP1, RAD51L1, RAP1GDS1, RARA, RB1, RET, RHOH, RPL22, SBDS, SDHB, SEPTIN6, SET, SH3GL1, SS18L1, SSX1, SSX2, SSX4, STAT3, TAF15, TCF12, TCL1A, TFE3, TFEB, TFG, TFPT, TFRC, TNFRSF6, TP53, TPM3, TPM4, TRIP11, VHL, WAS, WT1, ZNF198, ZNF278, ZNF384, ZNFN1A1 Based on a study by M. R Straton and co-workers " A census of human cancer genes".


Current topics of cancer treatment research include:



Radiation therapy

Boosting the immune system

Gene Therapy

Targeted therapy


In January 2007 researchers of the University of Alberta reported preliminary results of dichloroacetate (DCA) causing regression in several cancers in vitro, including lung, breast and brain tumors. Since the compound DCA itself cannot be patented it could be an inexpensive alternative to other treatments, depending of course on whether the method of using DCA in the treatment of cancer is patentable. Clinical use of DCA will of course require further public/private investment for clinical trials. The initial research was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.



Vaccines (see HPV Vaccine)

Recent research may indicate a connection between Vitamin D deficiency and cancer.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy (or radiotherapy) is the medical use of ionizing radiation as part of cancer treatment to control malignant cells (not to be confused with radiology, the use of radiation in medical imaging and diagnosis). Radiotherapy may be used for curative or adjuvant cancer treatment. It is used as palliative treatment (where cure is not possible and the aim is for local disease control or symptomatic relief) or as therapeutic treatment (where the therapy has survival benefit but is not curative). Total body irradiation (TBI) is a radiotherapy technique used to prepare the body to receive a bone marrow transplant. Radiotherapy has a few applications in non-malignant conditions, such as the treatment of trigeminal neuralgia, severe thyroid eye disease, pterygium, prevention of keloid scar growth, and prevention of heterotopic bone formation. The use of radiotherapy in non-malignant conditions is limited partly by worries about the risk of radiation-induced cancers.

Radiotherapy is commonly used for the treatment of malignant tumors (cancer), and may be used as the primary therapy. It is also common to combine radiotherapy with surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy or some mixture of the three. Most common cancer types can be treated with radiotherapy in some way. The precise treatment intent (curative, adjuvant, neoadjuvant, therapeutic, or palliative) will depend on the tumor type, location, and stage, as well as the general health of the patient.

Radiation therapy is commonly applied to the tumor. The radiation fields may also include the draining lymph nodes if they are clinically or radiologically involved with tumor, or if there is thought to be a risk of subclinical malignant spread. It is necessary to include a margin of normal tissue around the tumor to allow for uncertainties in daily set-up and internal tumor motion. These uncertainties can be caused by internal movement (for example, respiration and bladder filling) and movement of external skin marks relative to the tumor position.

To spare normal tissues (such as skin or organs which radiation must pass through in order to treat the tumor), shaped radiation beams are aimed from several angles of exposure to intersect at the tumor, providing a much larger absorbed dose there than in the surrounding, healthy tissue.

Side effects

Radiotherapy is in itself painless. Many low-dose palliative treatments (for example, radiotherapy to bony metastases) cause minimal or no side effects. Treatment to higher doses causes varying side effects during treatment (acute side effects), in the months or years following treatment (long-term side effects), or after re-treatment (cumulative side effects). The nature, severity, and longevity of side effects depends on the organs that receive the radiation, the treatment itself (type of radiation, dose, fractionation, concurrent chemotherapy), and the patient.

Most side effects are predictable and expected. One of the aims of modern radiotherapy is to reduce side effects to a minimum, and to help the patient to understand and to deal with those side effects which are unavoidable.

Acute side effects

Damage, possibly severe, to epithelial surfaces (skin, oral, pharyngeal and bowel mucosa, urothelium)

The rates of onset and of recovery depend on the rate of turnover of the epithelial cells. Typically the skin starts to become pink and sore several weeks into treatment. The reaction may become more severe during the treatment and for up to about one week following the end of radiotherapy, and the skin may break down. Although this moist desquamation is uncomfortable, recovery is usually quick. Skin reactions tend to be worse in areas where there are natural folds in the skin, such as underneath the female breast, behind the ear, and in the groin.

Similarly, the lining of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and bowel may be damaged by radiation. If the head and neck area is treated, temporary soreness and ulceration commonly occur in the mouth and throat. If severe, this can affect swallowing, and the patient may need painkillers and nutritional support. The esophagus can also become sore if it is treated directly, or if, as commonly occurs, it receives a dose of collateral radiation during treatment of lung cancer.

The lower bowel may be treated directly with radiation (treatment of rectal or anal cancer) or be exposed by radiotherapy to other pelvic structures (prostate, bladder, female genital tract). Typical symptoms are soreness, diarrhea, and nausea.

Swelling (edema or Oedema)

As part of the general inflammation that occurs, swelling of soft tissues may cause problems during radiotherapy. This is a concern during treatment of brain tumors and brain metastases, especially where there is pre-existing raised intracranial pressure or where the tumor is causing near-total obstruction of a lumen (e.g., trachea or main bronchus). Surgical intervention may be considered prior to treatment with radiation. If surgery is deemed unnecessary or inappropriate, the patient may receive steroids during radiotherapy to reduce swelling.


The gonads (ovaries and testicles) are very sensitive to radiation. They may be unable to produce gametes following direct exposure to most normal treatment doses of radiation. Treatment planning for all body sites is designed to minimize, if not completely exclude dose to the gonads if they are not the primary area of treatment.


Generalized fatigue

Medium and long-term side effects

These depend on the tissue that received the treatment; they may be minimal.


Tissues which have been irradiated tend to become less elastic over time due to a diffuse scarring process.

Hair loss

This may be most pronounced in patients who have received radiotherapy to the brain. Unlike the hair loss seen with chemotherapy, radiation-induced hair loss is more likely to be permanent, but is also more likely to be limited to the area treated by the radiation.


The salivary glands and tear glands have a radiation tolerance of about 30 Gy in 2 Gy fractions, a dose which is exceeded by most radical head and neck cancer treatments. Dry mouth (xerostomia) and dry eyes (xerophthalmia) can become irritating long-term problems and severely reduce the patient's quality of life. Similarly, sweat glands in treated skin (such as the armpit) tend to stop working, and the naturally moist vaginal mucosa is often dry following pelvic irradiation.


Radiation is a potential cause of cancer, and secondary malignancies are seen in a very small minority of patients, generally many years after they have received a course of radiation treatment. In the vast majority of cases, this risk is greatly outweighed by the reduction in risk conferred by treating the primary cancer.

Cumulative side effects

Cumulative effects from reirradiation should not be confused with long-term effects — when short-term effects have disappeared and long-term effects are subclinical, reirradation can still be problematic.


The amount of radiation used in radiation therapy is measured in grays (Gy), and varies depending on the type and stage of cancer being treated. For curative (radical) cases, the typical dose for a solid epithelial tumor ranges from 60 to 80 Gy, while lymphoma tumors are treated with 20 to 40 Gy. Preventative (adjuvant) doses are typically around 45 - 60Gy in 1.8 - 2 Gy fractions (for Breast, Head and Neck cancers respectively.) Many other factors are considered by radiation oncologists when selecting a dose, including whether the patient is receiving chemotherapy, whether radiation therapy is being administered before or after surgery, and the degree of success of surgery.


The total dose is fractionated (spread out over time) in order to give normal cells time to recover. In the USA and Europe, the typical fractionation schedule for adults is 1.8 to 2 Gy per day, five days a week. In the northern United Kingdom, fractions are more commonly 2.67 to 2.75 Gy per day, which eases the burden on thinly spread resources in the National Health Service. For children, a typical fraction is 1.5 to 1.7 Gy per day, reducing the chance and severity of late-onset side effects.

In some cases, two fractions per day are used near the end of a course of treatment. This schedule, known as a concomitant boost regimen and/or hyperfractionation, is used on tumors that regenerate more quickly when they are smaller. In particular, tumors in the head and neck demonstrate this behavior.

One of the best-known alternative fractionation schedules is Continuous Hyperfractionated Accelerated Radiotherapy (CHART). CHART, used to treat lung cancer, consists of three smaller fractions per day. Although reasonably successful, CHART can be a strain on radiation therapy departments.

Implants can be fractionated over minutes or hours, or they can be permanent seeds which slowly deliver radiation until they become inactive.

Mechanism of action

Radiation therapy works by damaging the DNA of cells. The damage is caused by a photon, electron or proton beam directly or indirectly ionizing the atoms which make up DNA chain. Indirect ionization happens as a result of the ionization of water, forming free radicals, notably hydroxyl radicals, which then damage the DNA. In the most common forms of radiation therapy, most of the radiation effect is through free radicals. Because cells have mechanisms for repairing DNA damage, breaking the DNA on both strands proves to be the most significant technique in modifying cell characteristics. Because cancer cells generally are undifferentiated and stem cell-like, they reproduce more, and have a diminished ability to repair sub-lethal damage compared to most healthy differentiated cells. The DNA damage is inherited through cell division, accumulating damage to the cancer cells, causing them to die or reproduce more slowly. Proton radiotherapy works by sending protons with varying kinetic energy to precisely stop at the tumor.

One of the major limitations of radiotherapy is that the cells of solid tumors become deficient in oxygen. This is because solid tumors usually outgrow their blood supply, causing a low-oxygen state known as hypoxia. The more hypoxic the tumors are the more resistant they are to the effects of radiation because oxygen makes the radiation damage to DNA permanent. Much research has been devoted to overcoming this problem including the use of high pressure oxygen tanks, blood substitutes that carry increased oxygen, hypoxic cell radiosensitizers such as misonidazole and metronidazole, and hypoxic cytotoxins, such as tirapazamine. There is also interest in the fact that high LET particles such as carbon or neon ions may have an antitumor effect which is independent of tumor hypoxia.

History of radiation therapy

Radiation therapy has been in use as a cancer treatment for more than 100 years, with its earliest roots traced from the discovery of x-rays in 1895. The concept of therapeutic radiation was invented by German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen when he discovered that the x-ray was a powerful and effective tool with which to treat cancer.

The field of radiation therapy began to grow in the early 1900s largely due to the groundbreaking work of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie, who discovered the radioactive elements polonium and radium. This began a new era in medical treatment and research. Radium was used in various forms until the mid 1900s when cobalt and caesium units came into use. Medical linear accelerators have been developed since the late 1940s.

With Godfrey Hounsfield’s discovery of computed tomography, 3-dimensional planning became a possibility and created a shift from 2-D to 3-D radiation delivery; physicians and physics were no longer limited because CT-based planning allowed physicians to directly measure the dose delivered to the patients anatomy based on axial tomographical images. Orthovoltage and cobalt units have largely been replaced by megavoltage linear accelerators, useful for their penetrating energies and lack of physical radiation source.

In the last few decades, the advent of new imaging technologies, e.g., MRI in the 1970s, PET in the 1980s, as well as new radiation delivery and visualization products, e.g., digital linear accelerator, image fusion, has moved radiation therapy from 3-D conformal to IMRT and eventually to IGRT (4-D) in the near future. These advances have resulted in better treatment outcomes and less side effects. Now 70% of cancer patients receive radiation therapy as part of their cancer treatment.

Types of radiation therapy

Three main divisions of radiotherapy are external beam radiotherapy (EBRT or XBRT) or teletherapy, brachytherapy or sealed source radiotherapy and unsealed source radiotherapy. The differences relate to the position of the radiation source; external is outside the body, while sealed and unsealed source radiotherapy has radioactive material delivered internally. Brachytherapy sealed sources are usually extracted later, while unsealed sources may be administered by injection or ingestion. Proton therapy is a special case of external beam radiotherapy where the particles are protons.

Roughly half of the 2500 worldwide radiotherapy clinics are in the US (as of 2001).

Conventional external beam radiotherapy

Conventional external beam radiotherapy (2DXRT) is delivered via two-dimensional beams using linear accelerator machines. 2DXRT mainly consists of a single beam of radiation delivered to the patient from several directions: often front or back, and both sides. Conventional refers to the way the treatment is planned or simulated on a specially calibrated diagnostic x-ray machine known as a simulator because it recreates the linear accelerator actions (or sometimes by eye), and to the usually well established arrangements of the radiation beams to achieve a desired plan. The aim of simulation is to accurately target or localize the volume which is to be treated. This technique is well established and is generally quick and reliable. The worry is that some high-dose treatments may be limited by the radiation toxicity capacity of healthy tissues which lay close to the target tumor volume. An example of this problem is seen in radiation of the prostate gland, where the sensitivity of the adjacent rectum limits the dose which can be safely prescribed to such an extent that tumor control may not be easily achievable. Previous to the invention of the CT, physicians and physicists had limited knowledge about the true radiation dosage delivered to both cancerous and healthy tissue. For this reason, 3-dimensional conformal radiotherapy is becoming the standard treatment for a number of tumor sites.

The planning of radiotherapy treatment has been revolutionized by the ability to delineate tumors and adjacent normal structures in three dimensions using specialized CT and/or MRI scanners and planning software. Virtual simulation, the most basic form of planning, allows more accurate placement of radiation beams than is possible using conventional X-rays, where soft-tissue structures are often difficult to assess and normal tissues difficult to protect.

An enhancement of virtual simulation is 3-Dimensional Conformal Radiotherapy (3DCRT), in which the profile of each radiation beam is shaped to fit the profile of the target from a beam's eye view (BEV) using a multileaf collimator (MLC) and a variable number of beams. When the treatment volume conforms to the shape of the tumor, the relative toxicity of radiation to the surrounding normal tissues is reduced, allowing a higher dose of radiation to be delivered to the tumor than conventional techniques would allow.

Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT) is an advanced type of high-precision radiation that is the next generation of 3DCRT.(Galvin et al 2004) Computer-controlled x-ray accelerators distribute precise radiation doses to malignant tumors or specific areas within the tumor. The pattern of radiation delivery is determined using highly-tailored computing applications to perform Optimization (mathematics) and treatment simulation (Treatment Planning). The radiation dose is consistent with the 3-D shape of the tumor by controlling, or modulating, the radiation beam’s intensity. IMRT also improves the ability to conform the treatment volume to concave tumor shapes, for example when the tumor is wrapped around a vulnerable structure such as the spinal cord or a major organ or blood vessel. The radiation dose intensity is elevated near the gross tumor volume while radiation among the neighboring normal tissue is decreased or avoided completely. The customized radiation dose is intended to maximize tumor dose while simultaneously protecting the surrounding normal tissue. Because of this, IMRT allows for higher radiation doses to be delivered to the tumor while sparing healthy tissue as compared with conventional radiation therapy techniques (2DXRT and 3DCRT). This in turn results in better tumor targeting, less side effects, and improved treatment outcomes than even 3DCRT.

3DCRT is still used extensively for many body sites but the use of IMRT is growing in more complicated body sites such as CNS, head and neck, prostate, breast and lung. Unfortunately, IMRT is limited by its need for additional time from experienced medical personnel. This is because physicians must manually delineate the tumors one CT image at a time through the entire disease site which can take much longer than 3DCRT preparation. Then, medical physicists and dosimetrists must be engaged to create a viable treatment plan. Also, the IMRT technology has only been used commercially since the late 1990’s even at the most advanced cancer centers so radiation oncologists who did not learn it as part of their residency program must to find additional sources of education before implementing IMRT.

Proof of improved survival benefit from either of these two techniques over conventional radiotherapy (2DXRT) is growing for many tumor sites, but the ability to reduce toxicity is generally accepted. Both techniques enable dose escalation, potentially increasing usefulness. There has been some concern, particularly with 3DCRT, about increased exposure of normal tissue to radiation and the consequent potential for secondary malignancy. Overconfidence in the accuracy of imaging may increase the chance of missing lesions that are invisible on the planning scans (and therefore not included in the treatment plan) or that move between or during a treatment (for example, due to respiration or inadequate patient immobilization). New techniques are being developed to better control this uncertainty — for example, real-time imaging combined with real-time adjustment of the therapeutic beams. This new technology is called image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT) or four-dimensional radiotherapy.

Radioisotope Therapy (RIT)

Radiotherapy can also be delivered through infusion (into the bloodstream) or ingestion. Examples are the infusion of metaiodobenzylguanidine (MIBG) to treat neuroblastoma, of oral iodine-131 to treat thyroid cancer or thyrotoxicosis, and of hormone-bound lutetium-177 and yttrium-90 to treat neuroendocrine tumors (peptide receptor radionuclide therapy). Another example is the injection of radioactive glass or resin microspheres into the hepatic artery to radioembolize liver tumors or liver metastases.

In 2002, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Ibritumomab tiuxetan (Zevalin), which is a monoclonal antibody anti-CD20 conjugated to a molecule of Yttrium-90. In 2003, the FDA approved Tositumomab Iodine-131 (Bexxar), which conjugates a molecule of Iodine-131 to the monoclonal antibody anti-CD20. These medications were the first agents of what is known as radioimmunotherapy, and they were approved for the treatment of refractory non-Hodgkins lymphoma.



Chemotherapy is the use of chemical substances to treat disease. In its modern-day use, it refers primarily to cytotoxic drugs used to treat cancer.

In its non-oncological use, the term may also refer to antibiotics (antibacterial chemotherapy). In that sense, the first modern chemotherapeutic agent was Paul Ehrlich's arsphenamine, an arsenic compound discovered in 1909 and used to treat syphilis. This was later followed by sulfonamides discovered by Domagk and penicillin G discovered by Alexander Fleming.

Other uses of cytostatic chemotherapy agents (including the ones mentioned below) are the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis and the suppression of transplant rejections (see immunosuppression and DMARDs).

History of cancer chemotherapy

The first drug used for cancer chemotherapy was not originally intended for that purpose. Mustard gas was used as a chemical warfare agent during World War I and was studied further during World War II. During a military operation in World War II, a group of people were accidentally exposed to mustard gas and were later found to have very low white blood cell counts. It was reasoned that an agent that damaged the rapidly growing white blood cells might have a similar effect on cancer. Therefore, in the 1940s, several patients with advanced lymphomas (cancers of certain white blood cells) were given the drug by vein, rather than by breathing the irritating gas. Their improvement, although temporary, was remarkable. That experience led researchers to look for other substances that might have similar effects against cancer. As a result, many other drugs have been developed to treat cancer, and drug development since then has exploded into a multi-billion dollar industry. The targeted-therapy revolution has arrived, but the principles and limitations of chemotherapy discovered by the early researchers still apply.


Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells coupled with malignant behavior: invasion and metastasis. Cancer is thought to be caused by the interaction between genetic susceptibility and environmental toxins. Autoimmune diseases arise from an overactive immune response of the body against substances and tissues normally present in the body - in other words, the body attacks its own cells. In contrast, transplant rejection happens because a normal healthy human immune system can distinguish foreign tissues and attempts to destroy them. Also the reverse situation, called graft-versus-host disease, may take place.

Broadly, most chemotherapeutic drugs work by impairing mitosis (cell division), effectively targeting fast-dividing cells. As these drugs cause damage to cells they are termed cytotoxic. Some drugs cause cells to undergo apoptosis (so-called "programmed cell death").

Unfortunately, scientists have yet to identify specific features of malignant and immune cells that would make them uniquely targetable (barring some recent examples, such as the Philadelphia chromosome as targeted by imatinib). This means that other fast dividing cells such as those responsible for hair growth and for replacement of the intestinal epithelium (lining) are also often affected. However, some drugs have a better side-effect profile than others, enabling doctors to adjust treatment regimens to the advantage of patients in certain situations.

As chemotherapy affects cell division, tumors with high growth fractions (such as acute myelogenous leukemia and the aggressive lymphomas, including Hodgkin's disease) are more sensitive to chemotherapy, as a larger proportion of the targeted cells are undergoing cell division at any time. Malignancies with slower growth rates, such as indolent lymphomas, tend to respond to chemotherapy much more modestly.

Drugs affect "younger" tumors (i.e. more differentiated) more effectively, because mechanisms regulating cell growth are usually still preserved. With succeeding generations of tumor cells, differentiation is typically lost, growth becomes less regulated, and tumors become less responsive to most chemotherapeutic agents. Near the center of some solid tumors, cell division has effectively ceased, making them insensitive to chemotherapy. Another problem with solid tumors is the fact that the chemotherapeutic agent often does not reach the core of the tumor. Solutions to this problem include radiation therapy (both brachytherapy and teletherapy) and surgery.

Over time, cancer cells become more resistant to chemotherapy treatments. Recently, scientists have identified small pumps on the surface of cancer cells that actively move chemotherapy from inside the cell to the outside. Research on p-glycoprotein and other such chemotherapy efflux pumps, is currently ongoing. Medications to inhibit the function of p-glycoprotein are undergoing testing as of June, 2007 to enhance the efficacy of chemotherapy.

Treatment schemes

There are a number of strategies in the administration of chemotherapeutic drugs used today. Chemotherapy may be given with a curative intent or it may aim to prolong life or to palliate symptoms.

Combined modality chemotherapy is the use of drugs with other cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy or surgery. Most cancers are now treated in this way. Combination chemotherapy is a similar practice which involves treating a patient with a number of different drugs simultaneously. The drugs differ in their mechanism and side effects. The biggest advantage is minimising the chances of resistance developing to any one agent.

In neoadjuvant chemotherapy (preoperative treatment) initial chemotherapy is aimed for shrinking the primary tumor, thereby rendering local therapy (surgery or radiotherapy) less destructive or more effective.

Adjuvant chemotherapy (postoperative treatment) can be used when there is little evidence of cancer present, but there is risk of recurrence. This can help reduce chances of resistance developing if the tumor does develop. It is also useful in killing any cancerous cells which have spread to other parts of the body. This is often effective as the newly growing tumors are fast-dividing, and therefore very susceptible.

Palliative chemotherapy is given without curative intent, but simply to decrease tumor load and increase life expectancy. For these regimens, a better toxicity profile is generally expected.

All chemotherapy regimens require that the patient be capable of undergoing the treatment. Performance status is often used as a measure to determine whether a patient can receive chemotherapy, or whether dose reduction is required.


The majority of chemotherapeutic drugs can be divided in to: alkylating agents, antimetabolites, anthracyclines, plant alkaloids, topoisomerase inhibitors, monoclonal antibodies, and other antitumor agents. All of these drugs affect cell division or DNA synthesis and function in some way.

Some newer agents don't directly interfere with DNA. These include the new tyrosine kinase inhibitor imatinib mesylate (Gleevec® or Glivec®), which directly targets a molecular abnormality in certain types of cancer (chronic myelogenous leukemia, gastrointestinal stromal tumors).

In addition, some drugs may be used which modulate tumor cell behaviour without directly attacking those cells. Hormone treatments fall into this category of adjuvant therapies.

Where available, Anatomical Therapeutic Chemical Classification System codes are provided for the major categories.

Alkylating agents

Alkylating agents are so named because of their ability to add alkyl groups to many electronegative groups under conditions present in cells. Cisplatin and carboplatin, as well as oxaliplatin are alkylating agents.

Other agents are mechloethamine, cyclophosphamide, chlorambucil. They work by chemically modifying a cell's DNA.


Anti-metabolites masquerade as purine ((azathioprine, mercaptopurine)) or pyrimidine - which become the building blocks of DNA. They prevent these substances becoming incorporated in to DNA during the "S" phase (of the cell cycle), stopping normal development and division. They also affect RNA synthesis. Due to their efficiency, these drugs are the most widely used cytostatics.

Plant alkaloids and terpenoids (L01C)

These alkaloids are derived from plants and block cell division by preventing microtubule function. Microtubules are vital for cell division and without them it can not occur. The main examples are vinca alkaloids and taxanes.

Vinca alkaloids (L01CA)

Vinca alkaloids bind to specific sites on tubulin, inhibiting the assembly of tubulin into microtubules (M phase of the cell cycle). They are derived from the Madagascar periwinkle, Catharanthus roseus (formerly known as Vinca rosea). The vinca alkaloids include:






Podophyllotoxin (L01CB)

Podophyllotoxin is a plant-derived compound used to produce two other cytostatic drugs, etoposide and teniposide. They prevent the cell from entering the G1 phase (the start of DNA replication) and the replication of DNA (the S phase). The exact mechanism of its action still has to be elucidated.

The substance has been primarily obtained from the American Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum). Recently it has been discovered that a rare Himalayan Mayapple (Podophyllum hexandrum) contains it in a much greater quantity, but as the plant is endangered, its supply is limited. Studies have been conducted to isolate the genes involved in the substance's production, so that it could be obtained recombinantively.

Taxanes (L01CD)

Taxanes are derived from the Yew Tree. Paclitaxel (Taxol®) is derived from the bark of the Pacific Yew Tree (Taxus brevifolia). Researchers had found a much renewable source, where the precursors of Paclitaxel can be found in relatively high amounts in the leaves of the European Yew Tree (Taxus baccata), and that Paclitaxel, and Docetaxel (a semi-synthetic analogue of Paclitaxel) could be obtained by semi-synthetic conversion. Taxanes enhance stability of microtubules, preventing the separation of chromosomes during anaphase. Taxanes include:




Topoisomerase inhibitors (L01CB and L01XX)

Topoisomerases are essential enzymes that maintain the topology of DNA. Inhibition of type I or type II topoisomerases interferes with both transcription and replication of DNA by upsetting proper DNA supercoiling.


Some type I topoisomerase inhibitors include camptothecins: irinotecan and topotecan.

Examples of type II inhibitors include amsacrine, etoposide, etoposide phosphate, and teniposide. These are semisynthetic derivatives of epipodophyllotoxins, alkaloids naturally occurring in the root of American Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum).

Antitumor antibiotics (L01D)

The most important immunosuppressant from this group is dactinomycin, which is used in kidney transplantations.

Monoclonal antibodies

Monoclonal antibodies work by targeting tumor specific antigens, thus enhancing the host's immune response to tumor cells to which the agent attaches itself. Examples are trastuzumab (Herceptin), cetuximab, and rituximab (Rituxan or Mabthera). Bevacizumab is a monoclonal antibody that does not directly attack tumor cells but instead blocks the formation fo new tumor vessels.

Hormonal therapy

Several malignancies respond to hormonal therapy. Strictly speaking, this is not chemotherapy. Cancer arising from certain tissues, including the mammary and prostate glands, may be inhibited or stimulated by appropriate changes in hormone balance.


Steroids (often dexamethasone) can inhibit tumor growth or the associated edema (tissue swelling), and may cause regression of lymph node malignancies.

Prostate cancer is often sensitive to finasteride, an agent that blocks the peripheral conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone.

Breast cancer cells often highly express the estrogen and/or progesterone receptor. Inhibiting the production (with aromatase inhibitors) or action (with tamoxifen) of these hormones can often be used as an adjunct to therapy.

Gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonists (GnRH), such as goserelin possess a paradoxic negative feedback effect followed by inhibition of the release of FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) and LH (luteinizing hormone), when given continuously.

Some other tumors are also hormone dependent, although the specific mechanism is still unclear.


Dosage of chemotherapy can be difficult: if the dose is too low, it will be ineffective against the tumor, while at excessive doses the toxicity (side-effects, neutropenia) will be intolerable to the patient. This has led to the formation of detailed "dosing schemes" in most hospitals, which give guidance on the correct dose and adjustment in case of toxicity. In immunotherapy, they are in principle used in smaller dosages than in the treatment of malignant diseases.

In most cases, the dose is adjusted for the patient's body surface area, a measure that correlates with blood volume. The BSA is usually calculated with a mathematical formula or a nomogram, using a patient's weight and height, rather than by direct measurement.


Most chemotherapy is delivered intravenously, although there are a number of agents that can be administered orally (e.g. melphalan, busulfan, capecitabine). In some cases, isolated limb perfusion (often used in melanoma), or isolated infusion of chemotherapy into the liver or the lung have been used. The main purpose of these approaches is to deliver a very high dose of chemotherapy to tumor sites without causing overwhelming systemic damage.

Depending on the patient, the cancer, the stage of cancer, the type of chemotherapy, and the dosage, intravenous chemotherapy may be given on either an inpatient or outpatient basis. For continuous, frequent or prolonged intravenous chemotherapy administration, various systems may be surgically inserted into the vasculature to maintain access. Commonly used systems are the Hickman line, the Port-a-Cath or the PICC line. These have a lower infection risk, are much less prone to phlebitis or extravasation, and abolish the need for repeated insertion of peripheral cannulae.

Harmful and lethal toxicity from chemotherapy limits the dosage of chemotherapy that can be given. Some tumors can be destroyed by sufficiently high doses of chemotheraputic agents. Unfortunately, these high doses cannot be given because they would be fatal to the patient.

Newer and experimental approaches

Hematopoietic stem cell transplant approaches

Stem cell harvesting and autologous or allogeneic stem cell transplant has been used to allow for higher doses of chemotheraputic agents where dosages are primarily limited by hematopoietic damage. Years of research in treating solid tumors, particularly breast cancer, with hematopoeitic stem cell transplants, has yielded little proof of efficacy. Hematological malignancies such as myeloma, lymphoma, and leukemia remain the main indications for stem cell transplants.

Isolated infusion approaches

Isolated limb perfusion (often used in melanoma), or isolated infusion of chemotherapy into the liver or the lung have been used to treat some tumors. The main purpose of these approaches is to deliver a very high dose of chemotherapy to tumor sites without causing overwhelming systemic damage. (Unfortunately, while these approaches can be useful against solitary or limited metastases, they are - by definition - not systemic and therefore do not treat distributed metastases or micrometastases).

Specially targeted delivery mechanisms toward higher effective doses and reduced toxicity

Specially targeted delivery vehicles aim to increase effective levels of chemotherapy for tumor cells while reducing effective levels for other cells. This should result in an increased tumor kill and/or reduced toxicity.

Specially targeted delivery vehicles have a differentially higher affinity for tumor cells by interacting with tumor specific or tumor associated antigens.

In addition to their targeting component, they also carry a payload - whether this is a traditional chemotheraputic agent, or a radioisotope or an immune stimulating factor. Specially targeted delivery vehicles vary in their stability, selectivity and choice of target, but in essence they all aim to increase the maximum effective dose that can be delivered to the tumor cells. Reduced systemic toxicity means that they can also be used in sicker patients, and that they can carry new chemotheraputic agents that would have been far too toxic to deliver via traditional systemic approaches.


Nanoparticles have emerged as a useful vehicle for poorly-soluble agents such as paclitaxel. Abraxane, also known as nab-paclitaxel, was approved by the US FDA in January 2005 for the treatment of refractory breast cancer, and allows reduced use of the Cremophor vehicle usually found in paclitaxel.


Bacterially-derived minicells (MacDiarmid J.A. et al. (2007). "Bacterially Derived 400 nm Particles for Encapsulation and Cancer Cell Targeting of Chemotherapeutics" Cancer Cell 11, 431–445, May 2007) are a new approach to selectively delivering chemotherapy to target tumor cells, awaiting research trials in human subjects.

Side effects

The treatment can be physically exhausting for the patient. Current chemotherapeutic techniques have a range of side effects mainly affecting the fast-dividing cells of the body. Important common side-effects include (dependent on the agent):


Nausea and vomiting

Diarrhea or constipation



Memory loss

Depression of the immune system, hence (potentially lethal) infections and sepsis


Secondary neoplasms






immunosuppression and myelosuppression

Virtually all chemotherapeutic regimens can cause depression of the immune system, often by paralysing the bone marrow and leading to a decrease of white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. The latter two, when they occur, are improved with blood transfusion. Neutropenia (a decrease of the neutrophil granulocyte count below 0.5 x 109/litre) can be improved with synthetic G-CSF (granulocyte-colony stimulating factor, e.g. filgrastim, lenograstim, Neupogen®, Neulasta®.)

In very severe myelosuppression, which occurs in some regimens, almost all the bone marrow stem cells (cells which produce white and red blood cells) are destroyed, meaning allogenic or autologous bone marrow cell transplants are necessary. (In autologous BMTs, cells are removed from the patient before the treatment, multiplied and then re-injected afterwards; in allogenic BMTs the source is a donor.) However, some patients still develop diseases because of this interference with bone marrow.

Nausea and vomiting

Nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy; stomach upset may trigger a strong urge to vomit, or forcefully eliminate what is in the stomach.

Stimulation of the vomiting center results in the coordination of responses from the diaphragm, salivary glands, cranial nerves, and gastrointestinal muscles to produce the interruption of respiration and forced expulsion of stomach contents known as retching and vomiting. The vomiting center is stimulated directly by afferent input from the vagal and splanchnic nerves, the pharynx, the cerebral cortex, cholinergic and histamine stimulation from the vestibular system, and efferent input from the chemoreceptor trigger zone (CTZ). The CTZ is in the area postrema, outside the blood-brain barrier, and is thus susceptible to stimulation by substances present in the blood or cerebral spinal fluid. The neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin stimulate the vomiting center indirectly via stimulation of the CTZ.

The 5-HT3 inhibitors are the most effective antiemetics and constitute the single greatest advance in the management of nausea and vomiting in patients with cancer. These drugs are designed to block one or more of the signals that cause nausea and vomiting. The most sensitive signal during the first 24 hours after chemotherapy appears to be 5-HT3. Blocking the 5-HT3 signal is one approach to preventing acute emesis (vomiting), or emesis that is severe, but relatively short-lived. Approved 5-HT3 inhibitors include: Dolasetron (Anzemet®), Granisetron (Kytril®), and Ondansetron (Zofran®). The newest 5-HT3 inhibitor, palonosetron (Aloxi®), also prevents delayed nausea and vomiting, which occurs during the 2-5 days after treatment.

Another drug to control nausea in cancer patients became available in 2005. The substance P inhibitor aprepitant (marketed as Emend®) has been shown to be effective in controlling the nausea of cancer chemotherapy. The results of two large controlled trials were published in 2005, describing the efficacy of this medication in over 1,000 patients.

Some studies and patient groups claim that the use of cannabinoids derived from marijuana during chemotherapy greatly reduces the associated nausea and vomiting, and enables the patient to eat. Some synthetic derivatives of the active substance in marijuana (Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC) such as Marinol may be practical for this application. Natural marijuana, known as medical cannabis is also used and recommended by some oncologists, though its use is regulated and not everywhere legal and there is still lack of sufficient studies to prove its efficacy.

Other side effects

In particularly large tumors, such as large lymphomas, some patients develop tumor lysis syndrome from the rapid breakdown of malignant cells. Although prophylaxis is available and is often initiated in patients with large tumors, this is a dangerous side-effect which can lead to death if left untreated.

A proportion of patients reports fatigue or non-specific neurocognitive problems, such as an inability to concentrate; this is sometimes called post-chemotherapy cognitive impairment, colloquially referred to as "chemo brain" by patients' groups

Specific chemotherapeutic agents are associated with organ-specific toxicities, including cardiovascular disease (e.g., doxorubicin), interstitial lung disease (e.g., bleomycin) and occasionally secondary cancer (e.g. MOPP therapy for Hodgkin's disease).


Hormonal Therapy

Hormonal therapy is one of the major modalities of medical treatment for cancer, others being cytotoxic chemotherapy and targeted therapy (biotherapeutics). It involves the manipulation of the endocrine system through exogenous administration of specific hormones, particularly steroid hormones, or drugs which inhibit the production or activity of such hormones (hormone antagonists). Because steroid hormones are powerful drivers of gene expression in certain cancer cells, changing the levels or activity of certain hormones can cause certain cancers to cease growing, or even undergo cell death. Surgical removal of endocrine organs, such as orchiectomy and oophorectomy can also be employed as a form of hormonal therapy.

Hormonal therapy is used for several types of cancers derived from hormonally responsive tissues, including the breast, prostate, endometrium, and adrenal cortex. Hormonal therapy may also be used in the treatment of paraneoplastic syndromes or to ameliorate certain cancer- and chemotherapy-associated symptoms, such as anorexia. Perhaps the most familiar example of hormonal therapy in oncology is the use of the selective estrogen-response modulator tamoxifen for the treatment of breast cancer, although another class of hormonal agents, aromatase inhibitors, now have an expanding role in that disease.


One effective strategy for starving tumor cells of growth- and survival-promoting hormones is to use drugs which inhibit the production of those hormones in their organ of origin.

Aromatase inhibitors

Aromatase inhibitors are an important class of drugs used for the treatment of breast cancer in postmenopausal women. At menopause, estrogen production in the ovaries ceases, but other tissues continue to produce estrogen through the action of the enzyme aromatase on androgens produced by the adrenal glands. When the action of aromatase is blocked, estrogen levels in post-menopausal women can drop to extremely low levels, causing growth arrest and/or apoptosis of hormone-responsive cancer cells. Letrozole and anastrozole are aromatase inhibitors which have been shown to be superior to tamoxifen for the first-line treatment of breast cancer in postmenopausal women. Exemestane is an irreversible "aromatase inactivator" which is superior to megestrol for treatment of tamoxifen-refractory metastatic breast cancer, and does not appear to have the osteoporosis-promoting side effects of other drugs in this class.

Aminoglutethimide inhibits both aromatase and other enzymes critical for steroid hormone synthesis in the adrenal glands. It was formerly used for breast cancer treatment, but has since been replaced by more selective aromatase inhibitors. It can also be used for the treatment of hyperadrenocortical syndromes, such as Cushing's syndrome and hyperaldosteronism in adrenocortical carcinoma.

GnRH analogs

Analogs of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) can be used to induce a chemical castration, that is, complete suppression of the production of estrogen and progesterone from the female ovaries, or complete suppression of testosterone production from the male testes. This is due to a negative feedback effect of continuous stimulation of the pituitary gland by these hormones. Leuprolide and goserelin are GnRH analogs which are used primarily for the treatment of hormone-responsive prostate cancer. Because the initial endocrine response to GnRH analogs is actually hypersecretion of gonadal steroids, hormone receptor antagonists such as flutamide are typically used to prevent a transient boost in tumor growth.


Hormone receptor antagonists bind to the normal receptor for a given hormone and prevent its activation. The target receptor may be on the cell surface, as in the case of peptide and glycoprotein hormones, or it may be intracellular, as in the case of steroid hormone receptors.

Selective estrogen receptor modulators

Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERM's) are an important class of hormonal therapy agents which act as antagonists of the estrogen receptor and are used primarily for the treatment and chemoprevention of breast cancer. Some members of this family, such as tamoxifen, are actually partial agonists, which can actually increase estrogen receptor signalling in some tissues, such as the endometrium. Tamoxifen is currently first-line treatment for nearly all pre-menopausal women with hormone receptor-positive breast cancer. Raloxifene is a another partial agonist SERM which does not seem to promote endometrial cancer, and is used primarily for chemoprevention of breast cancer in high-risk individuals, as well as to prevent osteoporosis. Toremifene and fulvestrant are SERM's with little or no agonist activity, and are used for treatment of metastatic breast cancer.


Antiandrogens are a class of drug which bind and inhibit the androgen receptor, blocking the growth- and survival-promoting effects of testosterone on certain prostate cancers. Flutamide and bicalutamide are antiandrogens which are frequently used in the treatment of prostate cancer, either as long-term monotherapy, or in the initial few weeks of GnRH analog therapy.

Hormone supplementation


While most hormonal therapy strategies seek to block hormone signalling to cancer cells, there are some instances in which supplementation with specific hormone agonists may have a growth-inhibiting, or even cytotoxic effect on tumor cells. Because many hormones can produce antagonism and feedback inhibiton of the synthesis of other hormones, there is significant overlap between this concept and those discussed above.


Progestins (progesterone-like drugs) such as megestrol and medroxyprogesterone have been used for the treatment of hormone-responsive, advanced breast cancer, endometrial cancer, and prostate cancer. Progestins are also used in the treatment of endometrial hyperplasia, a precursor to endometrial adenocarcinoma. The exact mechanism of action of these hormones is unclear, and may involve both direct effect on the tumor cells (suppression of estrogen receptor levels, alteration of hormone metabolism, direct cytotoxicity) and indirect endocrine effects (suppression of adrenal androgen production and plasma estrone sulfate formation).


The androgen (testosterone-like drug) Fluoxymesterone is occasionally used for the treatment of advanced breast cancer. The mechanism of the anticancer effects of this androgen in breast cancer are unclear, but may be analogous to those of progestins.


The estrogen agonist Diethylstilbestrol (DES) is occasionally used to treat prostate cancer through suppression of testosterone production. It was previously used in the treatment of breast cancer, but has been replaced by more effective and less toxic agents. Estrace is an estrogen which was also formerly used for anti-androgen therapy of prostate cancer.

Somatostatin analogs

Octreotide is an analog of the peptide hormone somatostatin, which inhibits the production of numerous peptide hormones of the gastrointestinal system, including insulin, glucagon, pancreatic polypeptide, gastic inhibitory polypeptide, and gastrin. Octreotide is used for suppression of the hormonal syndromes which accompany several pancreatic islet cell tumors, including the Zollinger-Ellison syndrome of gastrinoma and the chronic hypoglycemia of insulinoma. It is also effective in suppression of the carcinoid syndrome, caused by advanced or extra-gastrointestinal carcinoid tumors. Octreotide may also be used for treatment of severe diarrhea caused by 5-fluorouracil chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Non-medical hormonal interventions

In addition to the use of medication to produce tumor-suppressing endocrine alterations, destruction of endocrine organs through surgery or radiation therapy are also possible. Surgical castration, or removal of the testes in males and ovaries in females, have been widely used in the past to treat hormone-responsive prostate cancer and breast cancer respectively. However, these invasive methods have been widely supplanted by the use of GnRH agonists, and other forms of pharmacologic castration.

There are still some situations in which surgical castration is beneficial. In women at high risk for breast cancer and ovarian cancer due to mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (removal of the fallopian tubes and ovaries) not only prevents ovarian cancer, but reduces their future risk for breast cancer by reducing lifetime estrogen exposure.

back to page 1

Contact Us || CRC Home Page || Top Oncologists Search Engine

Copyright © Consumers' Research Council of America. All rights reserved.