Despite Recommendations, Aggressive Cancer Treatment Still Common at End of Life

Laura Panjwani
Published: Monday, Jun 06, 2016

Dr Ronald C. Chen

Ronald C. Chen, MD, MPH

An analysis of over 28,000 patients younger than 65 with incurable cancers found that approximately three-fourths of them received aggressive care within the last 30 days of life and one-third died in the hospital, according to findings presented at the 2016 ASCO Annual Meeting.

The analysis, which included patients with 5 different types of metastatic cancer, also found that providing aggressive care at the end of life was not impacted by ASCO’s Choosing Wisely recommendations, issued in 2012, which strongly advised against cancer-directed therapy in patients with advanced solid tumors who are unlikely to benefit from it. The recommendation instead encouraged a focus on symptom-directed palliative care, but this analysis found no increase in hospice care use since 2012.

“Aggressive medical care for patients with incurable cancers at the end of life is widely recognized to be harmful to patients and their families,” said Ronald C. Chen, MD, MPH, who presented the analysis at an ASCO press conference. “Additional efforts are critically needed to improve end-of-life care for patients with terminal disease to ensure that the care provided meets the goals and preferences of patients and their families.”

The study looked at data from large commercial insurance claims of patients in 14 states. Patients were aged <65 years, had metastatic cancer of the lung, breast, prostate, colon, or pancreas, and died between 2007 and 2014. The study examined 6 indicators of aggressive care at the end of life: chemotherapy, radiation, invasive procedures (eg, biopsy, surgery), emergency department visits/hospitalization, intensive care, and in-hospital death.

The study included 12,764 patients with lung cancer, breast cancer (5855), colorectal (5207), pancreatic (3397), and prostate (1508).

Incidence of each aggressive therapy was remarkably similar across all 5 cancer types, said Chen.

The most common form of aggressive care was hospital admission or emergency department visit, occurring in 65% of patients with lung or pancreatic cancer, 62% of patients with colorectal or prostate cancer, and 64% of patients with breast cancer.   

Notably, fewer than that 1 in 5 patients in the study utilized hospice care, said Chen.

Across all 5 cancers investigated during the last 30 days of life, chemotherapy rate ranged from approximately 24% to 33% of patients, invasive procedure rate (25% to 31%), and ICU care (16% to 21%).

Radiotherapy was the least utilized treatment at the end of life, and also the most inconsistently prescribed across cancer types. Rates of use ranged from approximately 6% in pancreatic cancer to 21% in lung cancer.

In addition, the study found that between 30% and 35% of patients across all 5 tumor types investigated, died in the hospital

The overall rate of any aggressive care was 75 % for lung and pancreatic cancer, 74% for breast cancer, 72% for prostate cancer, and 71% for colorectal.

Study investigators also analyzed treatment trends before 2012 and between the first quarter of 2012 and the fourth quarter of 2014.

“The percentage of patients who received aggressive care over the last 30 days of life really didn’t change over time in these 5 cancers, said Chen. “We also saw little change before 2012, and the use of aggressive care did not seem to decrease after ASCO’s 2012 Choosing Wisely recommendations.”

While it is unclear exactly why the ASCO recommendations did not result in any changes, the bigger issue is why there are not more initiatives to improve end-of-life care overall, said press panel moderator Patricia Ganz, MD, FASCO, ASCO Expert in breast cancer.

“While Dr. Chen focused on Choosing Wisely in 2012, giving chemotherapy in the last 30 days of life has been a coping measure for a very long time, and it has been nationally looked at as one of our failures in giving good end-of-life care,” said Ganz.

“The fact that there wasn’t any dramatic change in 2012 doesn’t really bother me in the sense that we’ve been talking about this for a very long time and we haven’t seen any movement. We have a lot yet to do in terms of delivering high quality end-of-life care.”

It is most likely that end-of-life aggressive treatment is driven both by patients and their doctors, said Chen.

Oncologists are not always aware or accepting that a patient is nearing the end of life, and they may be motivated to continue to treat the patient by a strong desire to help them, despite survival chances, said Chen. However, the study also showed that two-thirds of patients went to the emergency department or were admitted to the hospital at the end of their lives, suggesting that patients may also play an active role in the high rate of aggressive treatment at end of life.

“These younger patients may want to continue to receive aggressive care for their cancers,” said Chen.


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