A new analysis just published in the journal Cancer concludes that a significant proportion of terminally ill cancer patients spend most of their final days and weeks subjected to grueling radiation therapy (radiotherapy). What makes this extra heartbreaking and downright outrageous is that irradiating dying cancer patients does absolutely nothing for the vast majority — except to cause more end-of-life suffering and to keep countless people in the hospital, instead of allowing them to die at home.
When mainstream medicine runs out of treatments to try for long-term cancer control, so-called palliative radiotherapy is often ordered for end-stage cancer patients. The rationale? It’s supposed to control cancer-related pain and other symptoms by reducing the number of cancer cells. That, in theory, can relieve pressure and bleeding and give patients a better quality of life in their final months and days.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Finally, in their new paper, Germany researchers have documented just how dismal the results of palliative radiotherapy really are.
Stephan Gripp, MD, of the University Hospital in Dusseldorf, Germany, and his colleagues investigated the treatment of terminally ill cancer patients who were referred for palliative radiotherapy at the University Hospital between December 2003 and July 2004. In all, they studied 33 of these patients, all of whom died within 30 days of receiving radiation therapy.
Bottom line: for most patients, the treatments were not effective and patients who were close to death and wanted to die in their own homes were instead kept in the hospital so they could be irradiated. And they often ended up dying in the hospital while suffering greatly from the effects of the radiation treatment.
The Cancer study found that radiotherapy was delivered to 91 percent of dying cancer patients and half of those patients spent more than 60 percent of their remaining lifespan on radiotherapy. In fact, only 58 percent of patients completed radiotherapy, primarily because they died. The therapy did not reduce pain in the vast majority. In fact, it increased pain and suffering in more than half of the patients.
Moreover, the researchers reported that many doctors who ordered palliative radiotherapy overestimated how long their patients had to live. Among cancer patients who died within one month, about one in five of their physicians had predicted more than six months survival. The German research team suggested that “excessive radiotherapy in end-stage cancer patients may reflect overoptimistic prognoses and unrealistic concerns about radiation damage.”
“Radiation oncologists have fallen short in accurately determining the life span of terminally ill cancer patients. This has resulted in unduly prolonged radiation therapy regimens that often go uncompleted due to death or withdrawal from treatment,” Dr. Gripp said in a statement to the media.
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