The Cleveland Clinic

Prostate Cancer: Erectile Dysfunction

Erectile dysfunction, also called impotence, is the inability to develop or sustain an erection satisfactory for sexual intercourse.

Though prostate cancer is not a cause of erectile dysfunction, treatments for the disease can cause the problem. These include:

  • Surgery to remove the entire prostate gland

  • Radiation therapy, whether by external beam or radioactive seed implants

  • Cryosurgery (freezing cancerous tissue)

  • Hormone therapy

All current treatments for prostate cancer can cause erectile dysfunction, though some treatments can lead to impotence sooner than others.

When Can Erectile Dysfunction Occur After Treatment?

  • Surgery. Some degree of erectile dysfunction occurs right after surgery to remove the prostate, regardless of whether the technique that tries to spare the nerve that controls erections is performed.

The severity of the erectile dysfunction depends on the type of surgery, stage of cancer, and skill of the surgeon.

If the nerve-sparing technique is used, recovery from erectile dysfunction may occur within the first year following the procedure. Recovery of erectile function after a non-nerve-sparing surgery is unlikely, but possible.

One study shows erectile dysfunction rates of 66% for nerve-sparing prostatectomy versus 75% for non-nerve sparing surgery at one year after the surgery. The use of vacuum devices or drugs such as Viagra after surgery once the body has healed may improve the quality of erections and speed the return of normal sexual function (see below).

If an erection can be achieved after surgery one does not lose the ability to have an orgasm but they are "dry" orgasms in which little (if any) ejaculation comes out. This results in infertility for most men. Although this is often not a concern, since most men are older at the time of diagnosis, if desired you could talk to your doctor about "banking" sperm before the procedure.

  • Radiation therapy. The onset of erectile dysfunction following radiation therapy is gradual and usually begins about six months following the treatment.

Loss of erectile function is the most common long-term complication of radiation therapy. But its occurrence decreases when more sophisticated treatments, like radioactive seed implants (brachytherapy), intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT), and 3-D conformal radiotherapy, are used.

  • Hormone therapy. When hormone therapy is used, erectile dysfunction may occur approximately two to four weeks after the start of therapy. A decreased desire for sex also occurs.

How Is Erectile Dysfunction Treated?

Current treatment options for erectile dysfunction for men who have received treatment for prostate cancer include:

  • Oral medications, such as Viagra, Cialis or Levitra

  • Injections of medicine into the penis before intercourse (called intracavernous injection therapy)

  • Use of a vacuum constriction device to draw blood into the penis to cause an erection

  • Medicine taken as a suppository placed in the penis prior to intercourse

  • Penile implants

How Effective Are Oral Erectile Dysfunction Drugs?

  • Following surgery The Cleveland Clinic's own experiences suggest that as many as 60% to 70% of men who have had nerves spared on both sides of the prostate will regain erections. Results are less favorable for men who have had a single nerve spared or no nerves spared.

  • Following radiation therapy Overall, 50% to 60% of men regain erections with Viagra following radiation for prostate cancer. However, current data are rather limited, especially for patients treated with radioactive seed implants.

  • Hormone therapy Specialists at The Cleveland Clinic find that men treated with hormone therapy do not respond well to any erectile dysfunction treatments, including Viagra, but data are limited.

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