Elderly 'tolerating cancer treatment effects better'

Elderly cancer patients can cope better with the side effects of cancer treatment these days, said a cancer expert here.
Elderly cancer patients can cope better with the side effects of cancer treatment these days, said a cancer expert here. PHOTO: ST FILE

Elderly cancer patients can cope better with the side effects of cancer treatment these days, said a cancer expert here.

"As compared to, say, a decade ago, now, elderly cancer patients in Singapore can better tolerate the side effects of cancer treatment," said Dr Ravindran Kanesvaran, a consultant of the medical oncology division at the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS).

A study the centre has been conducting since 2007 found that in 2011, more than 70 per cent of cancer patients above age 65 can tolerate the side effects of treatments such as chemotherapy.

In Singapore, 60 per cent of cancer patients are above 65 years old, Dr Kanesvaran noted.

"Often, patients feel that if they are old, they cannot tolerate the harsh side effects of cancer treatment drugs. But this study shows that some can."

He said the healthcare system here has improved, with greater awareness of preventive measures. "A focus on more exercise has also made our elderly stronger," he said.

Cancer is the leading cause of death in Singapore, contributing to 30 per cent of deaths, he noted.

Newer, improved drugs also help, he said. "They are quite targeted. Also, their side effects are less, and not as blunt as the effects of chemotherapy," he said.

NCCS, he said, is looking at a multidisciplinary approach for geriatric cancer in future. This means a team consisting of a geriatrician, a social worker, a psychologist, a pharmacist and a physiotherapist looking at each case of geriatric cancer.

For instance, the pharmacist will look at how drugs interact, while the physiotherapist could come up with an exercise programme to help the elderly patient keep fit.

But there are challenges to this approach, said Dr Kanesvaran.

"The whole treatment process would be very time-consuming. Also, how are we going to charge them? We would need funding for this new approach," he said.

NCCS said it sees almost 70 per cent of all cancer patients in public-sector institutions here.

Tan Weizhen

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2015, with the headline 'Elderly 'tolerating cancer treatment effects better''. Print Edition | Subscribe