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Older Lung Cancer Patients Less Likely to Be Treated

Researchers say doctors shouldn't be so quick to write off older people

FRIDAY, May 4, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- A study of seniors with non-small cell lung cancer found that older patients are less likely to receive treatment than younger patients, regardless of their overall health and prognosis.

Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type of lung cancer.

For this study, U.S. researchers looked at data from more than 20,000 lung cancer patients aged 65 and older in the VA Central Cancer Registry between 2003 and 2008 and found that, for all stages of lung cancer, younger, sicker patients were more likely to receive treatment than otherwise healthy older patients.

That may not be best for patients, the researchers said. Previous research has shown that older lung cancer patients who are otherwise healthy can benefit from treatment, while those with other illnesses are more vulnerable to the toxicity of cancer treatments.

"It's clear that, as human beings and physicians, we fixate on age in deciding whether to pursue cancer treatments, including lung cancer treatments. Instead, we should be looking at our patients' overall state of health," lead author Dr. Sunny Wang, a physician at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, said in a university news release.

The study was published May 1 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Patients aged 65 to 74 who were severely ill from other illnesses -- and thus less likely to benefit from and more likely to be harmed by cancer treatment -- received treatment at about the same rate as patients in the same age range with no other illnesses.

These patients were more likely to receive treatment than patients aged 75 to 84 who had no other illnesses and better prognoses.

"The message here is, don't base cancer treatment strictly on age," Wang said. "Don't write off an otherwise healthy 75-year-old, and don't automatically decide to treat a really ill 65-year-old without carefully assessing the risks and benefits for that patient."

More information

The American Cancer Society has more about non-small cell lung cancer.

SOURCE: University of California, San Francisco, news release, May 1, 2012
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