Men who are treated for prostate cancer with radiation may have almost doubled their risk of developing rectal cancer

A study in the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) journal Gastroenterology has found that men who are treated for prostate cancer with radiation may have almost doubled their risk of developing rectal cancer when compared to men who opted to have surgery.

Nancy Baxter, MD, PhD, lead study author with the University of Minnesota Cancer Centre, says men who have had prostate radiation should be aggressively monitored for rectal cancer starting five years after treatment, as they have a 70 percent higher risk of developing rectal cancer than those who underwent surgery, a risk similar to that posed by having a family history of the disease. Baxter says this is the first time rectal cancer risk associated with prostate radiation has been quantified, and the findings may also have implications for patients treated with radiation for other pelvic cancers.

Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed malignancy in the United States. Although there is a high rate of survival associated with prostate cancer, a large number of men are left at risk for long-term consequences of their cancer treatment, including the development of other cancers.

Using data from the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) Registry the researchers evaluated the effect of radiation on the development of cancer in the rectum. More than 85,000 men, age 18 to 80, were included in the study. Radiation therapy for prostate cancer has been associated with an increased rate of pelvic malignancies, particularly bladder cancer.

The study suggests that direct radiation to the rectum increases the risk of developing rectal cancer, but does not affect the risk of cancer in other parts of the colon and though the researchers are not suggesting that prostate cancer treatment should change, they recommend that the potential for developing rectal cancer be included in conversations between doctors and patients when treatments and surveillance for patients with prostate cancer are being considered.

Although the study results are based on men who were treated before 1995 and the risk of developing cancer may be reduced due to improved radiation delivery techniques the researchers say that even with today's technology, some portions of the rectum might still receive a high dose of radiation and the risk of rectal cancer may still be substantial and men treated with radiation for prostate cancer need monitoring for rectal cancer beginning five years after treatment.

Guidelines of multiple agencies and professional societies underscore the importance of colorectal cancer screening for all individuals 50 years of age and older. Approved tests include barium enema, FOBT, flexible sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy. However, flexible sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy are the best methods for accurately detecting rectal cancer. Each screening option has advantages and disadvantages. Patients undergoing radiation therapy for prostate cancer are advised to ask their doctor about one of the approved screening methods, regardless of their age.

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