Elderly risk more complications after major cancer surgery

Elderly patients hospitalized for cancer surgery are more likely to have complications afterward compared to the middle-aged, particularly when they have several other health problems, a U.S. study suggests.

Overall, almost one in 10 adults age 55 and older had at least one post-operative issue like delirium, dehydration, falls, fractures, pressure ulcers or unusual weight loss, the study of nearly 1 million cancer surgery patients found.

These setbacks were even more common when patients were at least 65 years old, had two or more other serious health problems in addition to malignancies, or had surgeries for tumors of the digestive system or nearby organs.

But the odds were worst for people over 75 - about 46 percent of them had at least one complication, compared with 22 percent of adults aged 55 to 64.

"With the population aging, it's becoming increasingly important to consider not only the survival benefits of cancer surgery but the impact on functionality, vitality and quality of life," said lead study author Dr. Hung-Jui Tan, a researcher in urologic oncology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"While the events studied here are specific to the initial hospitalization, they can carry potential long-term ramifications," Tan added by email.

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To see how age influences the risk of post-operative complications, Tan and colleagues reviewed hospital admission records for a nationwide sample of 940,000 adults age 55 and older who had cancer surgery from 2009 to 2011.

Compared with patients who were under age 65, those who were 65 to 74 years old were 23 percent more likely to have complications, while the over-75 group had 66 percent higher odds, researchers report in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Complications were most likely when patients were having surgery for cancers of the bladder, ovary, colon, rectum, pancreas or stomach.

After suffering post-operative setbacks, patients were also more likely to have further complications during their hospital stay, to remain in the hospital longer and to have more costly care. They were also more likely to die in the hospital and less likely to be discharged to home.

One limitation of the study is its reliance on administrative claims data, which is designed for billing purposes and might not always reflect the nuances of patients' medical conditions, the authors note. In addition, it's possible that some complications may have resulted from conditions patients had before they arrived at the hospital for cancer surgery.

The study can't prove that advanced age directly causes post-operative problems. But the findings suggest doctors and patients should consider these potential risks when deciding the best course of treatment, Tan said.

Patients should also understand that not all complications are equally devastating to quality of life. Dehydration and weight loss, for example, are nutritional problems that might be treated with fluids, noted Dr. Siri Rostoft, a geriatric medicine researcher at Oslo University Hospital in Norway.

"Cancer is often a lethal disease if left untreated that causes conditions such as bleeding, obstruction of the intestines, and pain," Rostoft, who wasn't involved in the study, said by email. "Not treating patients may be worse for their quality of life than operating."

Still, the findings add to a growing body of data on post-operative complications that may help doctors and patients decide if the potential benefits of surgery outweigh the possible risks, Dr. Steven Cunningham, a researcher at Saint Agnes Hospital and Cancer Institute in Baltimore who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.

Complications in the study were more likely at non-teaching hospitals and facilities that did fewer cancer surgeries, a factor that patients should also consider when they have a choice about where to go for surgery, noted Dr. Kwok-Leung Cheung, a researcher at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. and member of the surgical task force for the International Society of Geriatric Oncology.

Knowing when not to operate also matters, Cheung, who wasn't involved in the study, added by email.

"The surgeon should seriously consider the intensity of surgery, which has been identified as one of the important factors with post operative problems," Cheung added. "The use of minimally invasive techniques including laparoscopic and robotic surgery should be considered wherever appropriate."