Sex or survival: trade-offs between quality and quantity of life

J Clin Oncol. 1991 Feb;9(2):328-34. doi: 10.1200/JCO.1991.9.2.328.


Patients with localized prostate cancer may be treated with either surgery (radical prostatectomy) or radiotherapy. Although controversial, many physicians believe that surgery offers a higher survival rate. However, the surgical treatment may also produce a higher rate of sexual impotency. Our study assessed how men value survival and sexual potency when asked to trade off one for the other. Using the treatment-choice technique, we interviewed 50 men aged 45 to 70 years without known prostate cancer. At hypothetical rates of survival (90% at 5 years for surgery) and impotency (90% for surgery and 40% for radiotherapy) representing published estimates, 32% of respondents were unwilling to trade off any survival, but 68% were willing to trade off a 10% or greater advantage in 5-year survival (by choosing radiotherapy) to maintain sexual potency. The median 5-year survival traded off was 10% (range, 0% to 80%). Willingness to trade off survival for sexual potency was significantly related to level of education, but not to age, interest in sex, frequency of sexual intercourse, or ability to achieve erection. We conclude that some men may choose treatment with lower long-term survival to increase their chance of remaining sexually potent. Because these men may be difficult to identify in clinical practice, physicians should thoroughly discuss both surgery and radiotherapy options with patients who have localized prostate cancer.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Coitus / physiology
  • Coitus / psychology*
  • Disclosure
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / mortality
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / psychology
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Quality of Life*
  • Risk Assessment
  • Social Values*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Survival Rate
  • Value of Life*