Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III will not travel to Brussels to meet with his NATO and European counterparts this week, a Pentagon official said on Monday, as he remained hospitalized for complications stemming from prostate cancer surgery.
Mr. Austin, 70, returned to the hospital on Sunday, for the third time in two months, with “symptoms suggesting an emergent bladder issue.” He had initially intended to “retain the functions and duties of his office” but soon turned over his authorities to the deputy defense secretary, Kathleen Hicks.
It was unclear how long Mr. Austin was expected to remain at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he was taken on Sunday. In a statement, Dr. Gregory Chesnut and Dr. John Maddox said that Mr. Austin underwent nonsurgical procedures on Monday “under general anesthesia to address his bladder issue.”
“A prolonged hospital stay is not anticipated,” the doctors said, adding that they expected that Mr. Austin would “be able to resume his normal duties tomorrow.”
Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters that Celeste Wallander, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, would represent the United States at a meeting on Ukraine in Brussels on Wednesday. He also said that the American ambassador to NATO, Julianne Smith, would represent Mr. Austin at a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday.
Mr. Austin, General Ryder said, may attend the Wednesday meeting virtually if his health allows. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is also expected to attend Wednesday’s meeting virtually, General Ryder said.
On Dec. 22, Mr. Austin underwent what is known as a prostatectomy, the removal of all or part of the prostate gland. He was released after the surgery but returned a week later with an infection. He was put in intensive care, and doctors said they drained excess abdominal fluid.
Mr. Austin was widely criticized for failing to immediately disclose his illness and absence to the White House, a breach of protocol that baffled officials across the government, including at the Pentagon.
He remained hospitalized for two weeks in January and returned to the Pentagon on Jan. 29.
Two experts who specialize in prostate cancer surgery said that most men who undergo prostatectomies do not need to return to the hospital in the weeks after that surgery.
A recent study found that in the United States, only about 4 percent of men who have prostatectomies are readmitted to the hospital within 30 days afterward, and fewer than 2 percent are readmitted 31 to 90 days afterward.
Mr. Austin has “had a more rocky course than most patients,” said Dr. Judd W. Moul, a urologist and prostate specialist at Duke University.
Dr. Moul and Dr. Herbert Lepor, a professor of urology at the New York University School of Medicine, said one possible reason for Mr. Austin’s most recent hospitalization could be that scar tissue from his surgery had narrowed the pathway for urine to pass through his bladder.
A typical remedy is to stretch or dilate the urethra, a minimally invasive procedure that is often performed with general anesthesia, Dr. Lepor said. A catheter is usually inserted to drain the urine. Patients may need to have a catheter for several days after that. Longer-term use of a catheter would only be needed if doctors were unable to sufficiently dilate the urethra.
Dr. Moul said that public awareness of prostate-related health issues had been raised by the attention to Mr. Austin’s condition and the recent announcement that doctors treating King Charles III for an enlarged prostate found that he had cancer (the type of cancer has not been disclosed).
“We’ve never had this kind of urologic intrigue before,” Dr. Moul said.
At a news conference on Feb. 1, the defense secretary, who is known as being extremely private, sought to explain why he kept quiet about an illness that he described as a “gut punch.”
Mr. Austin said he thought President Biden had enough to worry about without having to be concerned about the personal problems of his defense secretary.
“When you’re president of the United States, you’ve got a lot of things on your plate,” he said. “I just didn’t feel that that was a thing that I should do at the time. But again, I recognize that that was a mistake.”
The House Armed Services Committee has asked Mr. Austin to testify this month about why he and his aides kept his illness secret.