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Older adults with cancer do better with care tailored to their needs

Written by Diane Archer

Standard treatment for cancer, including multiple rounds of radiation, can help many patients. But, older adults with cancer may do better with different care, tailored to their needs. Cheryl Platzman Weinstock reports for NPR on the value of a geriatric assessment before deciding on a treatment plan.

A geriatric assessment can help doctors understand the overall health status of older adults before their cancer treatment plan is established. The assessment evaluates people’s mental and physical conditions as well as their functional capacity, social lives and preferences. If a patient is not active physically or has lost significant cognitive function, aggressive treatment may not be in the patient’s best interest.

More than six in ten people with cancer are 65 or older and that percentage is expected to rise in the coming years. It’s not easy to know whether someone will survive cancer treatment or how much longer a patient will live after treatment. Geriatric assessments help doctors determine the likelihood of side effects from particular treatments.

Some evidence confirms that geriatric assessments may improve cancer care for older patients. Doctors are often inclined to try to cure patients regardless of the risks. But, intensive treatments on older patients with multiple conditions may actually accelerate their death.

Sometimes, less is more. With cancer treatment, a prescription drug could keep the cancer from growing. And, the drug, unlike radiation treatment, could allow patients who are already weak or suffering from multiple health conditions to have a better quality of life in their remaining years.

With a geriatric assessment, patients are more likely to learn about the benefits of less intensive treatment or comfort care. Some prefer these options to preserve their quality of life longer.

In fact, Cochrane analyzed 27 studies of geriatric assessments of older patients. It found that they had a greater chance of living at home one year afterwards than older patients who received chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

Geriatric assessments are not commonplace yet. If someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, consider asking for a geriatric assessment, especially in situations in which the person with cancer has another serious health condition or functional limitations.

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