Grupo de Oncología Radioterápica de Valencia y Murcia

Five Cancer Practices That Must Stop

Five common cancer procedures and tests have been identified that are not supported by evidence and should no longer be used, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

Oncologists should stop the unnecessary use of chemotherapy in patients with advanced cancers who are unlikely to benefit, and should limit their use of colony-stimulating factor (CSF) drugs in patients undergoing chemotherapy.

They should also curb their use of advanced costly imaging technologies for staging of early breast and prostate cancers, and for detecting breast cancer recurrences.

These recommendations, compiled after an extensive review of the literature and with input from more than 200 ASCO members, were published online April 3 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The move is part of the Choose Wisely campaign, organized by the American Board of Internal Medicine, in which many different medical specialties identified tests and procedures that could be skipped. In total, 45 procedures and tests were deemed unsupportable by evidence.

This campaign started when Howard Brody, MD, PhD, professor of family medicine at the University of Texas in Galveston, challenged each medical specialty to take a critical look at its field and identify 5 practices that are commonly performed despite a lack of evidence (N Engl J Med. 2010;362:283-285).

“At ASCO, we took that challenge to heart,” lead author Lowell Schnipper, MD, from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, and chair of the ASCO Cost of Care Task Force, said in a statement

“By tackling the overuse of treatments and tests for some of the most common cancers, we hope to achieve substantial improvements in the quality of cancer care in the United States,” he added.

Avoiding treatments that have little or no benefit means that “we also do our part to address the unsustainable cost increases that threaten our nation’s healthcare,” said Michael Link, MD, president of ASCO.

Stop Chemotherapy

Perhaps the most controversial of the new proposals is the recommendation to stop using or to withhold chemotherapy in patients with advanced solid tumors who are unlikely to benefit, and to focus instead on symptom relief and palliative care.

This whole area has stirred fierce debate in recent years, and attempts in the United States to introduce legislation for end-of-life discussions were stalled after accusations that this was a form of “soft euthanasia” and that these were “death panels” to persuade people not to use medical resources.

In their paper, Dr. Schnipper and colleagues emphasize that stopping chemotherapy is recommended only for a specific subgroup of patients with advanced solid tumors — those with low performance states (3 or 4) who are not eligible for a clinical trial, and in whom there was no benefit from previous evidence-based interventions and no strong evidence supporting the clinical value of further anticancer treatment.

“If a patient’s cancer has grown during 3 different regimens, the likelihood of treatment success is so poor and toxicity so high that further anticancer treatment is not recommended,” the authors write.

They cite results from the largest series of patients with nonsmall-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, which showed that only 2% had a documented response to third-line chemotherapy, and 0% had a response to fourth-line chemotherapy (Lung Cancer. 2003;39:55-61).

However, despite the evidence for lack of effect, administering nth-line chemotherapy is common, the authors note. They cite several studies showing that many NSCLC patients receive 4 lines of chemotherapy, and that many patients with solid tumors are still being given chemotherapy within days of death. “This practice is not being driven by profit, but by a desire to help patients,” the authors note, and “by the inability of patients, families, and their oncologists to make end-of-life transitions.”

Oncologists admit that they find this difficult, as previously reported by Medscape Medical News. Stopping chemotherapy can feel like failure and “giving up,” and sometimes patients or their relatives can demand more — in one instance, because the “chemotherapy cheers her up.”

“Stopping anticancer treatment should always be accompanied by appropriate palliative and supportive care and referral to a hospice,” the authors state.

“Best practice would be continuation of palliative care started concurrently at the time of diagnosis for ‘any patient with metastatic cancer and/or high symptom burden,” they add. This reiterates the recent provisional clinical opinion issued by ASCO.

Limit Use of G-CSF Products

Another recommendation related to chemotherapy is to cut down on the use of granulocyte CSF (G-CSF) products for the primary prevention of the chemo-induced adverse effect of febrile neutropenia.

Two G-CSFs are available in the United States: filgrastim (Neupogen) and sargramostim (Leukine).

ASCO guidelines state that G-CSFs are recommended in patients who have “a high risk” (more than 20%) of developing febrile neutropenia as a complication of chemotherapy.

In practice, however, there is a “clear overuse of these agents.” Use is inconsistent; the products are used both appropriately and inappropriately, the authors write. They note that these products are “costly” and should be used only in patients who are at high risk of developing febrile neutropenia, as specified in the guidelines.

Stay Away From High-Tech Imaging

The remainder of the new recommendations steer oncologists away from using advanced imaging technology in specific groups of cancer patients.

One instance is patients with early-stage prostate cancer and early-stage breast cancer, who have a low risk for metastasis. In these cases, advanced imaging technologies, such as positron emission technology (PET), computed tomography (CT), and radionuclide bones scans, should not be used to determine whether the cancer has spread, the authors note.

“These tests are often used in staging evaluation of low-risk cancers, despite a lack of evidence suggesting that they detect metastatic disease or survival,” the authors state. “Unnecessary imaging can lead to harm through unnecessary invasive procedures, overtreatment, and misdiagnosis.”

In addition to the potential harm from unnecessary exposure to ionizing radiation, as well as anxiety, there is also a huge monetary cost from such scans, the authors note.

The list price of a fluorodeoxyglucose PET with concurrent CT scan is around $2500 to $5000, depending on the scan and location. In many instances, patients are directly responsible for a portion of these costs.

The other instance where advanced imaging is discouraged is in patients who have been treated for breast cancer with curative intent who are now asymptomatic.

“The majority of patients with breast cancer diagnosed today present with early-stage, node-negative disease that is found on screening mammography,” the authors write.

“As a result of earlier diagnosis and the efficacy of adjuvant therapies…most of these women have a normal life expectancy and a low risk of recurrence.”

Several studies have now shown that in such patients, there is no benefit from routine imaging with PET, CT, or radionuclide bone scans, or from serial measurement of serum tumor markers, including CEA, CA 15-3, and CA 27-29, the authors state.

In addition to no benefit, there might be harm from false-positive results, leading to unnecessary invasive procedures, overtreatment, and misdiagnosis, they add.

Instead, such patients should be followed with mammography, with careful attention paid to patient history and physical examination, they suggest. Breast magnetic resonance imaging is not recommended for routine surveillance, because it has a high-false positive rate.

Lower Cost to Patients and Society

Reconsidering the use of these top 5 cancer treatments, tests, and procedures is likely to improve the value of cancer care, the authors note. This means achieving the desired clinical outcome at the lowest cost to the patient and society.

At the same time, each patient with a life-threatening disease is a challenge. In each case, the oncologist must take the unique features of each individual into consideration when making decisions on the management of their cancer, they add.

Dr. Schnipper reports serving as a consultant for ITA partners. Several of his coauthors report consultancy agreements with a number of pharmaceutical companies. Coauthor Douglas Blayney, MD, from Stanford Cancer Center in California, reports owning stock in Abbott, Amgen, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Express Scripts, Johnson & Johns, and United Healthcare.

J Clin Oncol. Published online April 3, 2012. Abstract

Authors and Disclosures


Zosia Chustecka

Zosia Chustecka is the News Editor for Medscape Oncology. A pharmacology graduate based in London, UK, she has edited and written extensively for publications aimed at clinician audiences. Winner of a 2011 Award for Excellence in Urology Health Reporting for an article on prostate cancer, her work also has been recognized by the British Medical Journalists Association, and recently she was awarded a Harvard University Fellowship on Cancer Genetics (May 2011) as well as a US National Press Foundation Cancer Issues Fellowship (October 2010). She can be reached at zchustecka@medscape.net.

Disclosure: Zosia Chustecka has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.