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Colon Cancer Special Report

How Old Is Too Old for Colorectal Cancer Surgery?

When a reasonably healthy octogenarian gets a diagnosis of colon cancer, the issue of age is bound to come up. How old is too old for colon cancer surgery? What are the risks? What kind of recovery and quality of life can the very elderly expect afterward? Is it worth it? Johns Hopkins explores these questions and others in this Special Report.

The first line of treatment for colorectal cancer is to remove the primary tumor or tumors. If your cancer is confined to polyps or a small area, surgery is probably the only treatment that you need. For stage I or II cancers that have not spread to the lymph nodes, the expected five-year survival rate after surgery without chemotherapy is 80 to 90%.

Surgery usually involves removing the segment of the colon or rectum that has the primary cancer and a margin of healthy colon on either side of the cancer. The surgeon will also remove the tissue that holds the colon in place (mesentery) and the adjacent lymph nodes. The number of lymph nodes removed can be important in providing an accurate stage and prognosis.

It is true that the risks of colorectal cancer surgery are higher for some older people. An analysis of 28 studies found lower survival rates among the elderly who have coexisting health conditions, are diagnosed at an advanced cancer stage, and have to undergo emergency procedures. Another study found that octogenarians with early stage cancer survived 10 or more years after colorectal cancer surgery if they had no chronic illnesses.

It appears that quality of life after colorectal cancer treatment can be as good for octogenarians as it is for younger seniors -- even in the face of coexisting illness, according to a Canadian study that compared the outcomes of people over age 80 with those in their 60s. The average age of the older group was 83 years at the time of colorectal cancer surgery, while the "youngsters" ranged in age from 65-69. People in both groups underwent comparable surgical procedures and had similar coexisting health problems (such as hypertension and diabetes), although the older group had somewhat less advanced (lower-stage) cancers.

The responses to a survey on quality of life and functioning before and after colorectal cancer surgery were remarkably similar in both groups. Before surgery, both worried about pain, becoming a burden, and death. After colorectal cancer surgery, there were no major changes or differences between the groups in terms of their ability to perform daily functions or their overall health, sexual function, or quality of life.

Too Early To Draw Firm Conclusions? The Canadian researchers emphasize that their study findings are preliminary, and some results may be biased. While the results are preliminary, the study provides further ammunition for the argument that determining which patients are candidates for colorectal cancer surgery shouldn’t be made solely on the basis of chronological age. High-functioning elderly people who undergo colorectal cancer surgery appear able to retain their ability to function and maintain a good quality of life.

Experts note that regardless of age the outcome of colorectal cancer surgery is likely to be better under these conditions:

  • The cancer is at an early stage. Most people in the study had stage 0, I, or II cancer; none had stage III or IV.
  • The person about to have treatment is functioning at a high level before surgery and in good general health, without multiple serious chronic diseases. People who have three or more chronic diseases -- such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, or heart disease -- tend to have poorer outcomes.
  • The surgery is seen as a positive action, and the person with cancer is aware of the procedures to be performed and the potential outcomes.
  • Other issues that could affect outcomes at any age include a family history of longevity and a good support system of family and friends.

Posted in Colon Cancer on March 6, 2010


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