Dr. Hy Muss is a well recognized expert in the treatment of elderly women with breast cancer, and his article “Adjuvant Chemotherapy of Breast Cancer in the Older Woman” is an extremely important addition to the limited existing literature on this topic. As he points out, nearly half of all breast cancer diagnoses occur in women over 65 years of age. As the total number of women in that demographic increases with the aging of our population, medical oncologists will be faced with a growing number of elderly breast cancer patients, for whom evidence-based recommendations on treatment are needed. As any medical oncologist who sits face-to-face with these older women knows, it is not acceptable to simply tell the patient that there are inadequate data to guide recommendations for adjuvant chemotherapy in her age group, though this is what the EBCTCG (Early Breast Cancer Trialists Collaborative Group) overview has concluded.
Although increasing age is the major risk factor for breast cancer incidence and mortality, when adjusted for disease stage, breast cancer mortality is similar among younger vs older patients. Importantly, about 90% of older women with breast cancer present with early-stage disease. The biologic characteristics of breast tumors in older patients suggest they would derive benefit from adjuvant therapy, particularly endocrine therapy, but older women are still frequently undertreated, resulting in poorer survival. Studies suggest that focusing on comorbidity rather than “chronologic age” as a surrogate for life-expectancy is a key aspect of adjuvant decision-making for older patients. Morbidity and mortality from cancer in vulnerable patients with poorer health can be accurately predicted by the Comprehensive Geriatric Assessment (CGA), which evaluates comorbidities, functional status, cognition, social support, psychological state, nutritional status, and polypharmacy. Use of the CGA and newer versions of this tool can lead to interventions that maintain function and improve quality of life in older patients with breast cancer.
Drs. Gillison and Chatta present an up-to-date review of the systemic treatments available to elderly patients with the most common types of cancer. The only point I might add in the context of their review is about recently reported, promising data on targeted therapies in acute leukemia patients. A large proportion of older patients have acute lymphocytic leukemia positive for a t(9;22) translocation (Philadelphia chromosome–positive ALL).
The review article by Drs. Gillison and Chatta represents a very nice overview of cancer chemotherapy in the older individual across a number of different tumor types. The authors correctly point out that it is very important to distinguish chronologic from physiologic age, and that older individuals have been historically underrepresented in cancer clinical trials. Many of the larger phase III clinical trials in this population are either not designed or not powered to look at individuals over the age of 70. Moreover, trials that do include older individuals often select for the most functional individuals with minimal competing comorbid conditions and often do not include or report secondary analysis that examines outcomes by age, health status, or a combination of both. As a result, health-care providers face challenges when communicating and selecting treatment options with patients and their companions.
The management of older patients with cancer is historically challenging because of a lack of prospective data regarding the appropriate management of this population. In this review, we address some of the issues and challenges surrounding the treatment of older cancer patients, including the withholding of medically appropriate treatment based on chronologic age, the historical omission of elderly from clinical trials, and the impact of geriatric assessment, and age-related changes in pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics. Finally, we conclude by discussing the existing evidence related to cancer treatment in the elderly, focusing primarily on the malignancies most commonly seen in older patients, and making general treatment recommendations where applicable.
The authors review the current trends in health literacy, patient-physician communication, and the medical treatment decision process, focusing attention on the older cancer patient population.
States population will be over 65 years old, with 2% of the population over 84. The corresponding projections for 2050 are 21% and 5%, respectively. These projections underscore the aging of the population, with most recent estimates of life expectancy hitting a record high of 78.1 years. With Americans living longer than ever before, physicians are already seeing larger numbers of elderly patients with cancers whose incidence increases with age, including colon cancer.
The Hippocratic principle of not harming the patient has remained up to this day an undisputed dogma in medicine. It reminds the physician of the possible detrimental, if not lethal, outcome of the treatment he prescribes and implicitly enforces good medical practice, although the true impact will unlikely be known. Oncology is one subspecialty of Medicine where this dilemma—ie, the pros and cons of treatment—is continuously put to the test, as the physician must decide on treatment for an often life-threatening illness while taking into account individual factors such as the patient’s will, performance status, available standard treatment options, and possible experimental approaches.
Bill, 53 years old and a 3-year survivor of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, reflects on his ongoing journey as a cancer survivor: “I was very sick and treatment was very rough, complete with a severe allergic reaction that was difficult to diagnose for a long time. But I made it through to the other shore…remission. Since then, I’ve been trying to rebuild a new life…Living with an 18-year-old [son], I can see how in some ways I’m in a parallel universe…Both of us are looking out at the world before us, at all the many possible options...trying to figure out what we want tomorrow to look like.
In this issue of ONCOLOGY, Balducci reviews principles for treating elderly patients with antineoplastic therapy. This paper begins by defining baseline terminology such as age and frailty, while providing an overview of applied techniques of discerning a patient’s functional impairment or disability.