Often times as neurosurgical residents we’re asked by faculty why we would (or wouldn’t) operate on patients. Therapies for cancer can have different goals. You, hopefully, don’t operate just because a brain tumor is there. Often times, surgery for malignant tumors that cannot be “completely” resected – in which a gross total resection cannot be achieved – has limited influence on cure or survival rates. I’m not a big fan of the idea of cytotoxic reduction.
In general then surgery can have any of three goals. It can have an oncological goal – if the tumor can be resected to a degree to influence survival. It can have a palliative goal – if debulking the tumor will relieve symptoms. It can have a diagnostic goal – if getting tissue will identify the tumor so that other treatments can be initiated.
Non-invasive therapies, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, can similarly have either an oncological or palliative goal.
All of these therapies can have significant morbidity and side effects and so the decision to undergo therapies merely as a matter of palliation should not be taken lightly. In many cases you can exchange current symptoms for other symptoms or increased risks associated with therapies.
Such makes a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology even more discouraging. In the study more than 380 patients with essentially terminal lung cancer with neuro or bony metastasis were surveyed as they underwent radiation therapy. The radiation therapy was solely a palliative therapy to relieve symptoms. And yet,
Seventy-eight percent of patients believed that RT was very or somewhat likely to help them live longer
The therapy was only palliative and had no oncologic goals and no hope of improving survival.
Twenty percent of the patients expected radiation treatments were “very likely” to cure their cancer
Its tough to relate these complex ideas to patients when there is such a disparity in information. Often times, in my experience, prognosis is discussed in vague terms. “This is not a curable disease,” or things along those lines without discussion that this is actually going to be fatal or discussion of numbers in terms of survival or what progressive symptoms and quality of life are likely to look like. Difficult discussions no doubt. But without such discussion it seems impossible to fully explain things like palliative therapy.