Palliative chemotherapy: oxymoron or misunderstanding?

Oncologists routinely prescribe chemotherapy for patients with advanced cancer. This practice is sometimes misunderstood by palliative care clinicians, yet data clearly show that chemotherapy can be a powerful palliative intervention when applied appropriately. Clarity regarding the term “palliative chemotherapy” is needed: it is chemotherapy given in the non-curative setting to optimize symptom control, improve quality of life, and sometimes to improve survival. Unfortunately, oncologists lack adequate tools to predict which patients will benefit. In a study recently published in BMC Palliative Care, Creutzfeldt et al. presented an innovative approach to advancing the science in this area: using patient reported outcomes to predict responses to palliative chemotherapy.

With further research, investigators may be able to develop predictive models for use at the bedside to inform clinical decision-making about the risks and benefits of treatment. In the meantime, oncologists and palliative care clinicians must work together to reduce the use of “end-of-life chemotherapy”—chemotherapy given close to death, which does not improve longevity or symptom control—while optimizing the use of chemotherapy that has true palliative benefits for patients.

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