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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Is Chemotherapy Effective?

Shortages of chemotherapy drugs have led to great concern in cancer care. Experts predict that patients will die without access to these drugs, but the bigger question has gone unasked: How effective is chemotherapy anyway?

While doctors and patients alike remain optimistic, the reality is that chemotherapy isn't very effective. A study published in the well-respected journal Clinical Oncology found that it made little difference in 5-year survival.

Researchers in Australia analyzed results of randomized clinical trials (the gold standard for research studies) involving 22 different kinds of cancer. They found that "The overall contribution of curative and adjuvant cytotoxic chemotherapy to 5-year survival in adults was estimated to be 2.3% in Australia and 2.1% in the USA."

Overall, only 2% of cancer patients treated with chemotherapy were alive five years later.

However, in some cases, chemotherapy was much more successful. For example, in the United States, 40 percent of patients with Hodgkins Disease (a cancer of the lymphatic system) treated with chemotherapy lived at least five more years. But in other cases, chemotherapy was even less effective. Less than 1 percent of patients with stomach cancer in the US were alive 5 years after chemotherapy treatment.

For some people, chemotherapy can be a life-saving treatment. But in most cases, it doesn't lead to a longer life and can compromise the quality of life that patients have left.

If you're considering chemotherapy, weigh both the benefits and the risks. Don't just ask your oncologist what treatments are available, inquire about their effectiveness as well.


Morgan G, Ward R, and Barton M. The contribution of cytotoxic chemotherapy to 5-year survival in adult malignancies. Clinical Oncology 2004 Dec; 16(8):549-60.

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