My father has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and his doctor is advising "watchful waiting." What is watchful waiting, and does it mean my father isn't going to get treatment?

Answers from Timothy J. Moynihan, M.D.

Watchful waiting is an approach used for some men with prostate cancer, particularly if they have a less aggressive form of cancer as indicated by a lower Gleason score. In such cases, the cancer may be relatively slow growing (indolent). Hence, it may be reasonable to watch and see what happens to the cancer before engaging in active treatment. That's because sometimes the cancer may not grow very fast, and it's less harmful to the individual if he's monitored until there's a clearer indication of whether the cancer is progressing. Monitoring may include regular blood tests and digital rectal examinations. During watchful waiting, no medical treatment is provided — meaning medications, radiation and surgery aren't used.

In many situations, watchful waiting with prostate cancer is a very safe thing to do, although some people are reluctant not do something about their cancer. However, it's possible that the cancer may never bother them in their lifetime, depending on their overall health, their age and other health conditions. So sometimes just watching for a period of time makes a lot of sense. And a person can switch from watchful waiting to active treatment at any time during the process.

Feb. 13, 2009 See more Expert Answers