News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

Radiation for prostate cancer increases risk of rectal cancer

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 07 April 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:809
  1. Janice Hopkins Tanne
  1. New York

    Men with prostate cancer treated with external beam radiation have a 70% higher risk of developing rectal cancer than men who have surgery, a US study has found. Radiation is now used for about 17% of patients with prostate cancer.

    The retrospective population based study used data from the US National Cancer Institute's surveillance, epidemiology, and end results (SEER) register, from 1973 to 1994, and included more than 85 000 men aged 18 to 80. The participants had had invasive microscopically confirmed prostate cancer but no evidence of metastases or previous history of colorectal cancer (Gastroenterology 2005;128:819-24).

    After controlling for other factors, the results showed that radiation was a significant risk factor for rectal cancer (P<0.0001), with a hazard ratio of 1.7 (95% confidence interval 1.4 to 2.2). This is equivalent to the same level of risk as having a first degree relative who has had colon cancer.

    “Overall, the risk is still quite low, about 5 in 1000 for those treated with surgery and 10 in 1000 for those treated with radiation,” she said.

    In all, 55 263 men had had surgery and 30 552 had been treated with radiation. The average age was 67.6, and the men given radiation were on average about two years older than those who had surgery.

    Nancy Baxter, an author and a colorectal surgeon at the University of Minnesota Medical School and Cancer Center, told the BMJ, “The rectum is so close to the prostate that it always receives a high dose of radiation, a dose very similar to that received by the prostate.” But external beam radiation has become more precise so less rectal tissue is irradiated, she said.

    The two treatment groups had different risks of developing rectal cancer but not of developing cancer elsewhere in the colon. “Colon cancer is more common than rectal cancer. Only 15% of colorectal cancer is rectal cancer while 85% of colorectal cancer is colon cancer,” said Dr Baxter.

    The incidence of rectal cancers five or more years after treatment was reviewed in survivors, because it takes five years for cancer induced by radiation to develop, said Dr Baxter. Follow-up for both groups lasted more than nine years.

    An accompanying editorial notes that the study “has provided the most convincing evidence to date that prostate irradiation can increase the risk of rectal cancer and that it is likely a consequence of the carcinogenic effects of ionizing radiation” (p 1114-7). The editorial goes on to say that cancer risk follows a linear dose response curve and that the study did not take account of the types and methods of radiation delivery or the dose or fields.