Treating Head and Neck Cancers in Some Elderly Patients is Advised, Study Finds

Sparing elderly patients from the rigors that go along with treatment is the primary thrust behind long-standing recommendations to not aggressively intervene when head and neck cancers are diagnosed in patients at age 71 or greater. After all, chemotherapy and radiation can take their toll on the body and may pose greater challenges than anticipated normal lifespan might justify in patients who are older. With that in mind, many older patients are treated with radiation alone. While this can offer some benefits, they may not be as positive as combination therapy that draws on both radiation and chemotherapy.

New research, in fact, is turning prior recommendations upside down. Researchers have found that in healthy elderly patients, a combination of chemo and radiation therapy can produce very promising benefits if other comorbidities are not present. One study that looked at more than 1,500 patients treated with chemoradiation found a much higher five-year survival rate than that witnessed in a group of patients who underwent radiation alone. Studies into the topic have looked at head and neck cancer patients in generally good overall health age 71 to about 81.

The findings of improved survival rates have prompted some researchers to make strong recommendations to treating physicians. They emphasize the need to look at the patient, not the age. Head and neck cancers are not quite as common as other forms of the disease, but they do affect an estimated 61,000 Americans each year. About 13,000 people die from this form of cancer annually.

Elderly patients who are diagnosed with cancer of any type should carefully discuss all treatment options with their healthcare providers. The best recommendations for treatment will hinge on the particulars of a case. If a person is in generally good health, but older, combination therapies may sometimes be very much justified.

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