Most Cancer Treatments Near End of Life Are Useless: Study

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Key Takeaways

  • Cancer treatments are useless for people near death

  • Use of the treatments provided no survival benefit in a new study

  • Nonetheless, nearly 1 in 5 cancer patients will undergo treatment near the end of life

FRIDAY, May 17, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- Cutting-edge cancer treatments are essentially useless for patients barely clinging to life, a new study shows.

Chemotherapies, immunotherapies, targeted therapies and hormone therapies do not improve survival rates in patients with very advanced tumors near the end of life, according to findings published May 16 in the journal JAMA Oncology.

“Since we don’t see an improved survival benefit, oncologists should revisit their goals of care conversations with patients, and this information in the study should be explained to patients,” said lead researcher Maureen Canavan, an associate research scientist with Yale Cancer Center.

For the study, researchers analyzed records on more than 78,000 adult cancer patients treated at 280 U.S. cancer clinics between 2015 and 2019.

The team specifically looked at patients in the final stages of six common cancers -- breast, colon, lung, pancreas, kidney and bladder.

“We wanted to find out if oncologic treatment of very advanced tumors is associated with improved survival or if there are times when it’s futile to continue care and instead oncologists should shift focus to palliative and supportive care,” Canavan said in a Yale news release.

The results showed no statistically significant survival benefit for patients treated with systemic therapies, compared to those who didn’t receive such treatments, researchers said.

Further, this was found across all the cancer types studied.

This information builds on a 2022 study, also published in the journal JAMA Oncology, which found there has been a gradual decline in chemotherapy use at the end of a patient’s life.

But at the same time, there’s been a corresponding uptick in the use of newer immunotherapy treatments, that earlier study reported.

That means that the use of systemic therapies overall has held steady, with about 17% of near-death patients receiving what now appears to be useless treatment, researchers said.

Doctors could best help patients by better judging when additional therapy will be futile and communicate that through a discussion of goals of care near the end of life, researchers concluded.

“We hope this information can help inform oncologists when they are deciding whether or not to continue treatment or transition patients who have metastatic disease to supportive care,” Canavan said.

More information

The National Cancer Institute has more about end-of-life care for cancer patients.

SOURCE: Yale Cancer Center, news release, May 16, 2024

What This Means For You

Patients with end-stage cancer should have a frank discussion with their doctor and family about options and next steps.

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