When Geriatric Medicine meets Oncology
Contributor: Marina Kotsani
Origin/affiliation: Geriatrician (France, Greece)
Several times in my practice I hear older people wondering “But, how is it possible to get cancer at that age? Doesn’t everything fade away? How is it possible for a tumour to develop?...” or “I have already fought against one cancer in my life, I didn’t expect for another one to come up”. I try to hide my astonishment on the popularity of these myths and explain that cancer is, in fact, more prevalent in older people and that most patients who are newly diagnosed with cancer are age 65 years or older.
Cancer management of the older patient is complex and thus an excellent example of the need of interprofessional cooperation.
Since the number of older people with cancer constantly increases, oncologists often face the challenge of dealing with older cancer patients with multiple comorbidities and various frailty and disability levels. Clinical trials on oncological treatments typically exclude frail older patients, leaving a gap of knowledge in the management of the older patient’s cancer.
Geriatric Assessment (GA) aims at helping oncologists taking tailored clinical decisions by considering the older person’s functional, cognitive, psychological and nutritional status, comorbidity, polypharmacy, social support, objective physical performance and geriatric syndromes, as well as the values and health-related goals of the individual.
Multiple studies have demonstrated that GA often modifies the oncological treatment plan, usually towards less intensive therapeutic options (with typically no effect on the oncological outcome), triggers non-oncological interventions and enhances the physician-patient/caregiver communication about aging-related concerns. Furthermore, there is evidence that GA also leads to more tangible benefits for the patient, such as lower treatment-related complications and toxicity, greater treatment completion rate, lower health care utilisation and better quality of life, whereas other relevant outcomes such as survival and physical functioning do not seem to be substantially modified.
Definitive conclusions are difficult to draw since the population of older people is highly heterogenous, let alone the types and stages of cancer they suffer from. Co-management models by oncologists, geriatricians and, often, multidisciplinary teams largely vary across different settings and highly depend on available resources and institutional organisation. Other challenges to address are the reflexion on the most appropriate tools, methods and performers of the GA, the dynamic evolution of the cancer patient’s health status, which may warrant GA updates and the long-term management of the complex needs of aged cancer survivors.
Future research should focus on the role of GA in patient-centred relevant outcomes, such as individualized goals’ achievement and quality of life.
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