“Predicting Short Survival” article: A Self-fulfilling Prophecy for the Newly Diagnosed

I thought I had seen enough articles which concentrated on the stats of how poorly kidney cancer patients did, but then, this one came along from Norway.  “A Three-Variable Model Predicts Short Survival in Patients with Newly Diagnosed Metastatic Renal Cell Carcinoma”, just published in 2017, it is shocking and may create barriers to proper care for patients.  The title might have been more accurately titled something like, “How We Fail to Find Kidney Cancer, Therefore Dooming Many to an Unnecessarily Efficient Death”.

Maybe it especially bothers me, in that I have come to expect more of the several Scandinavian health system as I understood them. Also, that I am 1/4 Norwegian, it seems a personal affront.  To lay the ground work, I shall remind you that kidney cancer is often found in the ‘6th” decade of life, or in the 50s, 60s and 70s, most often.  (Any earlier, and there might be a genetic problem, by the way.)  But it is also slow-growing, often can do so without many overt symptoms, but there are often hints.  Of course, if you do not look for those symptoms and search out those causes, you get that slow-growing cancer to establish itself quite thoroughly!  You know the rest of the story, no doubt.

The facts are as follows.  Norway is generally sparsely populated, having about 5.2 million people, with an aging populations, with about 11% over age 70 at present.  There were about 814 cases of kidney cancer in 2014, and more to more, per the stats.  The background statement of the above study notes that it is “important to have realistic perspectives, especially if the expected prognosis is very unfavorable”.  Already I am wondering how expectations by the doctors affect the care they are about to give the newly diagnosed.

In one small area of Norway, Norland data was collected about all newly diagnosed patients, with the stated concern that in trying to select the “best treatment option for an individual, the poor prognosis groups is the most challenging one because aggressive approaches may result in serious side effects in these often frail patients.”  Thus, the researchers wanted to find out how those patients treated within the national guidelines failed.

A central measure of their expectations–no doubt built on the previous years’ patient responses–was the definition of “short survival”, i.e., after the initial diagnosis.  Short survival was for 3.5 months or less…yet the concern from above is in regard to the ‘serious side effects’ in these patients.  Dying within 3.5 months of diagnosis in a modern health care system seems a pretty serious side effect as well!  In this small area there were 48 patients identified in this recent study, 10 of whom died within 3,5 months.  Those 38 patients who lived four months or longer were deemed to have had long survival.  Obviously those patient who were doing badly at the time of diagnosis seemed to die  more quickly.  This seems at odds with the American experience, with much long general overall survival, but it is hard to get those stats, as the US measurements are in terms of YEARS of survival.  A metastatic kidney cancer patient is a Stage IV patient, with the 5 YEAR survival at 8%, per the American Cancer Society–whose stats are necessarily behind the times.  They modify that to note that low-risk patients have a 41% survival rate, intermediate risk patients have a 18% survival rate, and the high-risk patients have the 8% survival rate at five years.

Why such a difference?  The disease is similarly divided 2 to 1, male to female, and there is a near-similar mix of subtypes, such as clear cell, papillary and chromophobe.  The median age at time of diagnosis is 68, slightly higher than in the US. However, in the US, only about 30% of patients are found to be metastatic at time of diagnosis, but in this small study, 70% were found to be with metastatic disease upon diagnosis or within 3 month of that time.  Most important is to note that only 65% of patients in this study were given a nephrectomy, either full or partial.  And post diagnosis, only about 56% of those patients received any systemic treatment.

That seems enough to tell me that these patients were treated very differently that most US patients in terms of surgery, but other statistics were striking. Though the 60-69 age group represented 58% of the patients, only 3.3% were found under 60 years of age.  Was nobody looking for cancer in this group? Imaging for other diseases often reveals kidney cancer, so the 3.3% seemed off the statistical mark.

Only 30% were found to be in ECOG Performance status 0-1, with 70% already struggling with the effects of their disease. Another measure indicates that only 18% had good performance status.  This causes me to wonder how long those patients struggled as well to get a necessary imaging study to verify the presence of a kidney tumor.  (Only 65% of those got the darn things removed!)

Over 55% of all these patients had low hemoglobin, one of the simplest measures found in every blood test.  A pretty good clue that something very fundamental was amiss with these patients. In the group who died within the ‘short survival’ period of  three months, 50% of them had SKIN metastases.  Again, a very visible symptom, and hard to ignore when found with the low hemoglobin.

So how did they do in terms of median Overall Survival?  That was only 13.2 months, and with a 2 year survival rate of 40%.

Perhaps late to be diagnosed, with far fewer nephrectomies than in the US, and with far fewer systemic therapies applied post the time of diagnosis–no wonder the outcomes are so poor! Does this influence the doctor as he diagnoses a patient with low hemoglobin and some odd skin manifestations.  Does he recommend a nephrectomy–and how long does it take to get into such a surgery?  Does the likelihood of a poor outcome prevent the doctor from taking a more aggressive approach, not to recommend any systemic treatment for 43% of those patients? Does he just assume the patient will succumb very quickly to the disease!  Does that create the poorer outcomes in these patients?

A self-fulfilling prophecy is oddly reassuring to the party who makes the prediction, as he unwittingly works to make that prophecy come true.  Poor expectations for survival may well lead to that very outcome.  Wish it were otherwise.





Filed under Guidelines, Newly Diagnosed, Surgery

2 Responses to “Predicting Short Survival” article: A Self-fulfilling Prophecy for the Newly Diagnosed

  1. Great article Peggy. I wonder if some of what is going on here regarding nephrectomy (or not) is a serious look at co-morbidities in elderly patients. I have seen some recent papers that evaluate all-cause morbidity vs cancer-specific mobidity that suggest a less aggressive approach in the elderly. There is suggestion that surgery in the elderly or those with co-morbidities can do more harm than good given competing factors.

    Overall with kidney cancer, Scandinavia fares very well — you’ve probably seen that the mortality curves are coming down in Sweden for example — far more so than in Canada or the U.S. So we should not give up on Scandinavia 😉 They are doing some things right.

    I wonder whether, in some countries, there is more open discussion about NOT pursuing active treatment (given cultural differences, differences in values about medical intervention, etc.) As long as patients have the CHOICE and all options are presented. For those diagnosed later in life, with poor overall health status, certainly that would be a choice to consider. I’m not suggesting “giving up” on these patients, only that all options should be on the table, including the option of not treating if that’s what the patient wants to do. I see this as a cultural phenomenon in some parts of rural Canada — some patients who are offered surgical intervention but quietly (and politely) decline it, offering instead to return home and take life as it comes…
    It has puzzled me… “but that surgery could be curative!”, but I’m learning more about maritime culture and how life values come into play into treatment decision making. It’s been humbling for someone who wants to find patients options, and options for options…
    Deb Maskens

  2. Mark Bauer

    Thanks Peggy, good to hear from you and to know more about your activities in this area of our mutual concens. Yes, what a dilema we’re in; advanced stage IV, knowing your time line is “shortened”, waiting for clues and/0r new information when it will really be our time to say goodbye.

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