What is active surveillance?
Active surveillance is a way of monitoring localised (early) prostate cancer, rather than treating it straight away. You might hear it called active monitoring.
If you go on active surveillance, you’ll have regular tests to check on the cancer. The aim is to avoid unnecessary treatment unless these tests show that your cancer may be growing, or you decide you want treatment – so you’ll avoid or delay the side effects of treatment. If there are signs your cancer may be growing, you’ll be offered treatment that aims to cure your cancer.
It might seem strange not to have treatment, but localised prostate cancer often grows slowly – if at all – and may have a low risk of spreading. So it may never cause you any problems or affect how long you live. Many men on active surveillance will never need treatment.
Active surveillance isn’t the same as watchful waiting, which is a different way of monitoring prostate cancer. Read about the differences between active surveillance and watchful waiting.
Watch Robin's story for one man's experience of being on active surveillance:
Who can go on active surveillance?
Active surveillance is suitable for men with Cambridge Prognostic Group (CPG) 1 or 2 localised prostate cancer. This means your cancer hasn’t spread outside the prostate and has a low risk of spreading.
It’s also sometimes suitable for men with CPG 3 localised prostate cancer who want to avoid or delay treatment.
If you have more aggressive prostate cancer that has a high risk of spreading (CPG 4 or 5) active surveillance won’t be recommended for you. Read about the different treatments for localised prostate cancer.
Your doctor will look at all your test results to see if active surveillance is an option for you. They will also make sure that:
- you’re fit enough to have treatments such as surgery or radiotherapy if your cancer starts to grow
- you know about the advantages and disadvantages of being on active surveillance
- you’ve discussed other treatment options with your doctor or nurse and you’re happy to go on active surveillance.
Talk to your doctor or nurse if you have any questions about your test results or treatment options. You can also get in touch with our Specialist Nurses.
We've been working hard to ensure health professionals offer active surveillance, along with ongoing information and support, to all suitable men. Find out more about our work.
What are the advantages and disadvantages?
Deciding whether or not to go on active surveillance is a personal choice. What may be important to one person might not be to someone else. If you’re offered active surveillance, speak to your doctor or nurse before deciding whether to go on it – they can help you decide whether it’s right for you. You may find it helpful to use our list of questions to ask your doctor or nurse.
- As you won’t have treatment while you’re on active surveillance, you’ll avoid the side effects of treatment.
- Active surveillance won’t affect your everyday life as much as treatment might.
- If tests show that your cancer might be growing, there are treatments available that aim to cure your cancer.
- You might need to have more prostate biopsies which can cause side effects, and which some men find uncomfortable or painful.
- Your general health could change, which might make some treatments unsuitable for you if you did need them.
- Some men may worry about not having treatment, and about their cancer growing – but you can change your mind and have treatment instead if this is a problem.
- Your cancer might grow more quickly than expected and become harder to treat – but this is very uncommon.
The idea of being on active surveillance was attractive because I didn’t have to worry about side effects as I wasn’t having any treatment.
What does active surveillance involve?
You’ll have regular tests to monitor your cancer. The tests aim to find any changes that suggest the cancer is growing. Depending on your hospital, you may have:
- PSA blood tests
- MRI scans
- digital rectal examinations (DRE)
- prostate biopsies
If your test results show that your cancer might be growing, you will be offered further tests to check on the cancer. If any changes are found, you can have treatment that aims to get rid of the cancer.
PSA blood test
This is a blood test that measures the amount of prostate specific antigen (PSA) in your blood. PSA is a protein produced by normal cells in the prostate, and by prostate cancer cells.
You will have had a PSA test to help diagnose your cancer. It’s also a useful test for monitoring prostate cancer. It’s normal for your PSA level to go up a little as you get older and your prostate gets bigger. And other things can cause it to rise, like an infection, recent ejaculation, anal or prostate stimulation, vigorous exercise, such as running and cycling, and some medicines or supplements. You should try to avoid sexual activity and vigorous exercise in the 48 hours before a PSA test. But if your PSA level rises faster than expected, this could be a sign that your cancer is growing.
If your doctor is concerned by any of these test results, they might recommend an MRI scan or a prostate biopsy to check if the cancer is growing.
Read more about the PSA blood test.
Booking your PSA blood test
Depending on your hospital, you may have your PSA tests at your local hospital, or you may need to book these tests yourself at your GP surgery. This varies from hospital to hospital.
Your doctor or nurse may send you a letter saying how often you should have PSA tests. But you might not get reminders, so check with your doctor so you know how often you need one. Give yourself plenty of time to book them, as hospitals and GP surgeries can be very busy and you may not be able to get an appointment straight away.
You should have an MRI scan when you first go on active surveillance to make sure your cancer hasn’t spread outside the prostate. You may then have regular MRI scans, although this will depend on your hospital. Your doctor may also suggest having an MRI scan if your PSA test or DRE results suggest your cancer might be growing. The scan can help your doctor decide if you need a biopsy. Read more about MRI scans.
Digital rectal examination (DRE)
This is where the doctor feels your prostate through the wall of the back passage (rectum). A normal prostate should feel soft and smooth. Your doctor will feel your prostate for any changes, such as hard or lumpy areas, that could suggest the cancer is growing. Read more about having a DRE.
Once you start active surveillance, you may only have another biopsy if other tests suggest your cancer is growing. Your PSA level might rise a little, even if your cancer isn’t growing. Your doctor will decide if it has risen enough for you to need a biopsy.
If you do have a biopsy that shows your cancer has grown, then your doctor may recommend you have treatment. This treatment will usually aim to get rid of the cancer. Read more about prostate biopsies.
How often will I have tests?
The tests you have, and how often you have them, will depend on your hospital. The following is an example, but your doctor will tell you how often you will have tests.
First year of active surveillance
- A PSA test every three to four months
- A DRE after 12 months
- An MRI scan after 12 to 18 months.
Second year onwards
- A PSA test every six months
- A DRE every 12 months.
You may find it helpful to use our 'Life on active surveillance' diary. This diary may help you feel more in control. You can keep track of your appointment details and also record your test results.
When would I stop active surveillance?
You can decide to have treatment at any time, no matter how long you have been on active surveillance. Living with cancer and not having treatment can be difficult, and you may experience feelings of stress, worry and anxiety. Some men decide they want to have treatment even though there are no signs of any changes. If you decide you do want treatment, speak to your doctor or nurse.
Is active surveillance safe?
Research shows active surveillance is a safe way for men with low risk prostate cancer to avoid or delay unnecessary treatment. And you have the same chances of living for 10 years or more as you would if you chose to have treatment with surgery or radiotherapy.
Picking up changes to your cancer
There’s a chance that your cancer could grow. But the risk of it growing without being picked up is very low. And the tests used to monitor your cancer should find any changes early enough to treat it.
There is a very small chance that the cancer will spread outside your prostate before being picked up, and treatment might not be able to get rid of it completely.
This can happen if:
- the tests used in active surveillance miss changes in your cancer, or
- the tests used to diagnose your prostate cancer didn’t find some areas of faster-growing cancer.
But this is very uncommon. And you’ll have regular tests to check on the cancer and make sure it isn’t growing. Talk to your doctor or nurse if you’re worried about the risk of your cancer growing.
I was on active surveillance for five years before a regular check showed my cancer was becoming more aggressive. So I decided to have surgery. Six years later, my PSA level is undetectable.
Concerns about not having treatment
Many men with low risk localised prostate cancer choose to go on active surveillance. But active surveillance isn’t for everyone. You might find it difficult not having treatment for prostate cancer, and worry that your cancer will change or spread. Some men on active surveillance decide to have treatment even though there are no signs of any changes in their cancer.
If at any time you decide that you want treatment, talk to your doctor or nurse. You don’t have to stay on active surveillance if you don’t want to.
Changes to your health
There’s a chance that your general health could change. This could make some treatments unsuitable for you if the cancer did grow. For example, if you were to get heart problems, you might not be able to have surgery to remove your prostate, as an operation might not be safe for you.
You can lower your risk of many health problems by eating healthily and doing regular exercise. Read more about diet and physical activity.
You can also lower your risk of many health problems by giving up smoking. Some research also suggests that smoking makes prostate cancer more likely to grow and spread to other parts of the body. And the more you smoke, the greater the risk. If you smoke, talk to your doctor or nurse for support to help you stop, or visit the NHS Smokefree website.
Are there any side effects?
As you won’t have treatment while you’re on active surveillance, you won't get any of the side effects of treatment.
If you do notice changes to the way you urinate, speak to your doctor or nurse. These changes are more likely to be a sign of an enlarged prostate, or another health problem. But it’s still a good idea to get it checked out.
You might need to have prostate biopsies while you’re on active surveillance though, and these can cause some short-term side effects. But many hospitals now do MRI scans instead of regular prostate biopsies.
There are two main types of biopsy:
- a transperineal biopsy, where the needle goes through the skin between the testicles and the back passage (the perineum)
- a trans-rectal ultrasound (TRUS) guided biopsy, where the needle goes through the wall of the back passage.
Biopsies can cause some short-term side effects, such as infection, and blood in the urine, semen or bowel movements. The risk of infection is lower after transperineal biopsy than after a TRUS biopsy. Many hospitals now use transperineal biopsy instead of TRUS biopsy, because of the risk of a serious infection, known as sepsis.
The idea of being on active surveillance was attractive, because I didn't have to worry about side effects as I wasn't having any treatment.
How is active surveillance different from watchful waiting?
Active surveillance is often confused with watchful waiting, which is another way of monitoring prostate cancer. Some people use names such as ‘active monitoring’ and ‘wait and see’ to describe both active surveillance and watchful waiting. These can mean different things to different people, so ask your doctor or nurse to explain exactly what they mean.
The aim of both is to avoid having unnecessary treatment, but the reasons for having them are different.
- It’s suitable for some men with localised prostate cancer, who can still have treatment that aims to cure their cancer.
- If you need treatment in the future, it will aim to cure your cancer.
- It involves more regular hospital tests than watchful waiting, such as prostate specific antigen (PSA) tests, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and prostate biopsies.
- It’s suitable for men with other health problems who may be less able to cope with treatments such as surgery or radiotherapy, or if treatment would cause more problems than the cancer itself.
- If you do have treatment in the future, it will aim to control the cancer and manage any symptoms, rather than aim to cure it.
- It can be used in men with localised prostate cancer, or in men whose cancer has spread to other parts of the body (locally advanced or advanced prostate cancer).
- It involves fewer tests than active surveillance, but the cancer will still be monitored. These check-ups usually take place at the GP surgery rather than at the hospital.
Questions to ask your doctor or nurse
You may find it helpful to use our Life on active surveillance diary. There are a number of questions listed as well as space for you to write the answers. This diary can also help you keep track of your appointment details and also record your test results. You may find it helpful to take it along with you to your active surveillance appointments.
A list of any questions you may want to take to your next appointment:
- Am I going on active surveillance or watchful waiting?
- Where will my appointments be?
- How often will I have my PSA level checked?
- Who will be in charge of booking my PSA tests?
- Who will check my PSA level and give me the results?
- How often will I see my doctor or nurse?
- Will I have other regular tests or scans? If so, which ones and how often?
- What test results would lead you to recommend treatment? Are there any specific results that mean I should have further tests?
- What treatments could I have if my cancer grows?
- What symptoms should I look out for and report?
- What do I do if I change my mind and want to have treatment?
- What can I do to improve my general health?
Updated: June 2023 | Due for Review: January 2026
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- Vineetha Thankappannair, MacMillan Lead, Clinical Nurse Specialist – urology cancer, Prostate Cancer Clinical Nurse Specialist
- Venkata Ramana Murthy Kusuma, Consultant, Urologist and Robotic Surgeon, Royal Surrey, Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. Guildford
- Our Specialist Nurses
- Our Volunteers.