Lung cancer expert Dr. Martin Edelman tackles common misconceptions about the effectiveness of lung cancer treatment in elderly patients. Want to learn more? Download the Program Resource Guide here.
Dr. Martin J. Edelman is Chair of the Department of Hematology/Oncology and Deputy Director for Clinical Research at Fox Chase Cancer Center. More about this expert here.
How about this one? Treatment is not effective in older patients.
Treatment is highly effective in older patients. It’s interesting. So, we had long arguments about, when I started in this field, whether treatment ever worked, and there were a number of studies that showed that chemotherapy – that one platinum was better – what’s called a platinum-based agent – was better than no therapy.
And then that two drugs were better than one drug. And people would say, “Oh, well, that doesn’t work in the elderly. And they should only get one drug.” And that’s because, I guess, their burning bush on the lawn told them this. And the fact is is that then got evaluated in a controlled trial, a very nicely done study by my European colleagues. But what was crucial was that they used somewhat lower doses of chemotherapy, a little bit different schedule of chemotherapy, and it was clearly superior to a single agent. And those were even days before immunotherapeutics and these targeted agents. So, many patients will benefit. You just have to be aware of certain basic principles in geriatric medicine as well as basic principles of lung cancer care.
So, first off, if the patient is elderly but their tumor is characterized by a driver mutation, they get one of the so-called targeted agents. And these are these days very non-toxic, easy to take, and highly effective.
Patients – many are going to be eligible for immunotherapy either as a single agent or combined with chemotherapy. Chemotherapy drugs could certainly be cut in their doses and still preserve much activity and be done safely.
I had a woman with small cell lung cancer. This is now about a year and a half ago or so. And she’s in her 80s. And she came to me because she was told – oh, just sorta get your affairs in order. And her disease was what we term an extensive small cell. The staging system’s a little bit different, but she didn’t have a really vast bulk of disease. And we treated her with standard chemotherapy drugs but at somewhat lower doses and some careful TLC and some other supportive things like growth factors.
She got all of her treatment on an outpatient basis, had an excellent response. We used radiation later to consolidate her treatment, and I see her back every couple of months. I wouldn’t say that she’s necessarily cured of her disease, but she does yoga every day. She lives a full life. She sees her grandchildren. And she’s, I think – I wanna say 83-84 years old. I think she’s quite grateful for that. It’s not the numerical age.
The flipside is if somebody’s 50 years old and they’re extremely ill when they come in, then one has to be very cautious about what one does. We used to say that those patients who come in who are severely impaired should simply get supportive care and hospice services.
And actually, how would I put it? Our lives have gotten a little bit more difficult lately because as things have gotten better for patients – because I can’t necessarily say that as much because some patients may be very susceptible to the effects of – their disease may be very susceptible to the effects of immunotherapy. I had one patient who was a younger gentleman who was on a gurney. He was in his 50s, lost an enormous amount of weight , he was on oxygen. We immediately gave him fluids. My fellow – I had an excellent fellow at the time – came to me and said, “Should we admit him and send him to hospice? Or just send him to hospice?” And I looked, and he had a biomarker that indicated that he might have an excellent response to immunotherapy, so we gave him solely immunotherapy and saw him back a few days later. He was still pretty touch and go. We gave him some fluids. A week after that – still, we were kinda touch and go, but he was still with us.
And then a week after that my medical assistant, comes in, and she says, “You know, he looks a little bit better today.” And he was in a wheelchair that day. And then a few weeks after that, he had a walker, and a few weeks after that a cane and about a year after that was asking me about whether or not he could go on a cruise. Again, I still see this gentleman – a couple weeks ago. It’s now almost two years later. And the question now that we have is – should we stop his treatment? And he is restored to complete full health, has had almost no side effects of treatment.
So again, this is not every patient. Some people will be treated and get every side effect and no benefit, but I think I’ve become a lot more reluctant to say that any patient should not at least be offered the opportunity for treatment knowing what the potential side effects are. And there still are considerable and sometimes severe side effects from therapy.