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Many Terminal Cancer Patients May Be Overtreated

Radiation therapy designed to ease pain can go on too long and be ineffective, study finds

Monday, April 12 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers report that many patients with terminal cancer don't benefit from getting radiation therapy designed to help them feel better by controlling symptoms like pain.

The researchers, who reported their findings in the online April 12 edition of the journal Cancer, say doctors are failing to properly adjust treatments to meet the needs of these patients. In some cases, they say, the radiation therapy is a product of undue optimism about a patient's chances of survival.

"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," said study co-author Dr. Stephan Gripp, of the University Hospital Duesseldorf in Germany, in a statement.

Gripp and colleagues tracked 33 patients who were referred for palliative radiotherapy -- designed to help reduce symptoms -- at their hospital from 2003 to 2004. The study only included patients who died within 30 days.

The researchers found that fewer than 60 percent of the patients finished their radiotherapy treatment, and many doctors thought patients would live longer than they actually did.

Only 26 percent of the patients reported reduction in symptoms or pain.

Gripp said doctors should find better ways to estimate lifespan for such patients, and he recommended that they give radiation therapy for a shorter period of time.

More information

The National Cancer Institute has more details on radiation treatment.

-- Randy Dotinga

SOURCE: American Cancer Society, news release, April 12, 2010

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