The government is set to conduct extensive research on the effects of anti-cancer agents on elderly patients in response to questions raised in the medical field over the survival advantage for such patients treated with anti-cancer drugs that cause strong side effects.
While anti-cancer agents can be effective in treatment, they can produce side effects such as body pain, nausea and pneumonia. Especially in cases of elderly patients, some medical experts have pointed out that the survival advantage of using anti-cancer drugs would be limited due to side effects caused by such treatment as many senior patients have combinations of illnesses along with cancer.
At the same time, the expansion of the use of expensive cancer drugs has become one of the reasons for growing health care costs.
Organizations including the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare and the National Cancer Center have carried out a preliminary study on some 7,000 cancer patients who were checked at the National Cancer Center Hospital between 2007 and 2008. Breaking them down by the types of cancer, the study compared the survival rates of two groups according to their age -- one with patients who went under anti-drug agent treatment and the other comprised of patients who were mainly treated with palliative care such as radiation therapy to relieve pain.
Among patients in the terminal stage of lung cancer, for example, the survival advantage was clearly enhanced with the use of cancer drugs for those aged under 75, while for patients aged 75 and older such drugs made little difference.
However, the number of samples of terminal lung cancer patients aged 75 and older used in the study was only around 20, and the figure was similarly small in other types of cancer. The government therefore judged that large-scale research was necessary to have any scientific benefit.
The health ministry plans to carry out detailed analysis on the use of anti-cancer treatment on senior patients by using a massive volume of data collected via the national cancer registry system, in which treatment data for cancer patients across Japan is gathered through prefectural governments. Based on results of the study, the ministry will promote policies focused on senior cancer patients.
The government-led study on the effect of cancer drugs on senior patients is expected to form the basic data to offer appropriate treatment in an age when one out of two Japanese people develops cancer during their lifetime. There are cases where doctors prescribe anti-cancer agents to senior patients who are in the terminal stages of the illness.
At the same time, the patient's opinion should be respected when choosing the kind of treatment. As conditions of different patients and their sense of value are diverse, it is not appropriate to draw a line between age groups on treatment they should receive.
The research project is also backed by the government's desire to hold down health care cost, but careful debate free from mere economic efficiency is necessary to make good use of the study results at medical institutions.