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Over a quarter of severely ill cancer patients could be dying each year as a result of their chemotherapy treatment

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More than one-quarter of severely ill cancer patients could be dying every year as a result of their chemotherapy treatment, according to
a report published last week by the National Confidential Enquiry into Patient Outcome and Death.

The report looked at more than 600 deaths of patients with cancer within 30 days of starting chemotherapy either to alleviate symptoms or as curative treatment.

The report concluded that the treatment received was ‘inappropriate’ in 19% of cases and had probably caused or hastened death in 27%.

As a result, oncology nurses have been encouraged to ensure that cancer patients are fully informed about the risks and benefits of chemotherapy.

Report co-author Mark Lansdown, surgical oncologist at Leeds General Infirmary, said: ‘The majority of patients in this study were receiving palliative treatment where the aim is to alleviate symptoms of cancer with the minimum of side-effects. ‘Yet 43% of all patients in the study suffered significant treatment-related toxicity.’

He added that National Confidential Enquiry into Patient Outcome and Death advisers believed that over one in four patients studied had died because of contributory factors from the treatment.

‘This is of particular concern for the 14% of patients in this study for whom the treatment was intended to cure them of their cancer,’ he said.

The authors recommended that patients must be made aware of the risks and side-effects of chemotherapy as well as the potential benefits, given time to reflect on their decision and be free to change their minds.

But Tariq White, nurse director for the Avon, Somerset and Wiltshire cancer network, said: ‘These results need to be treated with some caution because of the complexity of the case mix.’

‘In patients receiving chemotherapy for palliative care reasons, you would expect a proportion to die within 30 days but, if it is for curative intent, you would expect to see morbidity but not mortality,’ he said.

He added that nurses were ideally placed to give patients sufficient information about the risks and side-effects of chemotherapy to enable them to make informed decisions.

For advice on outlining palliative chemotherapy risks and benefits click here

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