No matter how much doctors push the treatment, chemotherapy might not be the best option in the fight against cancer, as a new study shows up to 50 percent of patients are killed by the drugs — not the disease, itself.
The Study – Researchers from Public Health England and Cancer Research UK performed a groundbreaking study examining for the first time the numbers of cancer patients who died within 30 days of beginning chemotherapy — indicating the treatment, not the cancer, was the cause of death. Looking at those death rates in hospitals across the U.K., researchers found an alarming mortality rate associated with chemotherapy. Across “England around 8.4 per cent of patients with lung cancer, and 2.4 per cent of breast cancer patients died within a month,” the Telegraph reported. “But in some hospitals the figure was far higher. In Milton Keynes the death rate for lung cancer treatment was 50.9 per cent, although it was based on a very small number of patients.”
Alarmingly, the one-month mortality rate at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals for those undergoing palliative, rather than curative, chemotherapy for lung cancer was a full 28 percent. One in five breast cancer patients receiving palliative care at Cambridge University Hospitals died from treatment. In certain areas — Blackpool, Coventry, Derby, South Tyneside, and Surrey and Sussex — deaths of lung cancer patients by chemotherapy were ‘far higher’ than the national average.
Dr. Jem Rashbass, Cancer Lead for Public Health England — the national health care service, which requested the study — said, as quoted by the Telegraph: “Chemotherapy is a vital part of cancer treatment and is a large reason behind the improved survival rates over the last four decades. “However, it is powerful medication with significant side effects and often getting the balance right on which patients to treat aggressively can be hard. “Those hospitals whose death rates are outside the expected range have had the findings shared with them and we have asked them to review their practice and data.” For the analysis, researchers “included all women with breast cancer and all men and women with lung cancer residing in England, who were 24 years or older and who started a cycle” of chemotherapy in 2014.
Long the mainstay for treating various cancers, chemotherapy has finally drawn criticism in recent years, as the medicine does not differentiate between healthy and cancerous cells. Now, this study — published in the Lancet — shows how that powerful cell-destroying property can mean the demise for patients as well. Researchers have advised physicians to exercise more caution in vetting which patients should ideally receive chemotherapy. Older and more infirm patients, in particular, might be better off without receiving palliative care, which is designed to offer relief instead of curing the disease.
“The statistics don’t suggest bad practice overall but there are some outliers,” noted Professor David Dodwell of the Institute of Oncology at St. James Hospital in Leeds. “It could be data problems, and figures skewed because of just a few deaths, but nevertheless it could also be down to problems with clinical practice,” he continued. “I think it’s important to make patients aware that there are potentially life threatening downsides to chemotherapy. And doctors should be more careful about who they treat with chemotherapy.”
All hospitals involved said they reviewed the information and remain certain chemotherapy is safe — with the caveat patient selection for the treatment may need to be more discretionary. Professor David Cameron of the Edinburgh Cancer Centre at West General Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland, noted, “The concern is that with some of the patients dying within 30 days of being given chemo probably shouldn’t have been given the chemo. But how many? There is no easy way to answer that, but perhaps looking at those places/hospitals where the death rate was higher might help.
“Furthermore, if we give less chemo then some patients will die because they didn’t get chemo. It’s a fine balance and the more data we have the better we can be at making sure we get the balance right.” Meanwhile, doctors in the United States should probably take note, considering the sheer number of patients forced to undergo chemotherapy at the State’s behest despite objections from those patients and their families.