New tool helps doctors treat elderly cancer patients

August 6, 2012

When it comes to cancer, age is just a number. But a new tool can help successfully treat older patients like Bill Owen, 91.

Owen says that nothing slows him down.

"I go out and work my garden, go out here and cut me some wood and stack it out here," said Owen.

The World War II veteran now has another title- cancer survivor.

Doctors diagnosed Bill with stage four lymphoma four years ago. Because of his age, Owen said he and his wife were told to go home and enjoy the time he had left.

"About scared me to death," said Owen.

Doctors say treatment decisions are difficult for the elderly because most clinical trials only include younger patients.

"It's not clear exactly which older patients are going to benefit from any given therapy," said Dr. Heidi Klepin of North Carolina's Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

Klepin said treatment recommendations are often based on age alone, but a disparity exists between a fit 80-year-old patient and a frail 80-year-old patient, for example.

"If you applied the same treatment to both of those patients, you would either under-treat the fit 80-year-old patient, or over-treat and potentially harm the frail 80-year-old patient," said Klepin.

Klepin is using an innovative assessment tool to evaluate seniors with leukemia. She measures everything from physical function to a patient's mental state.

Klepin's findings show those who scored poorly before chemotherapy have a higher risk of death.

"People want to know what are the risks for me to go through this therapy, what are the benefits, with this type of assessment, we can start answering those questions," said Klepin.

For Owen, it meant finding another doctor and undergoing chemo.

"I still go all day long!" Owen said.

Klepin hopes her study will help create a nationwide test for oncologists that can determine which seniors will benefit from aggressive treatment.

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