Women Anticipate More Side Effects to Cancer Treatment

Wilmot Cancer Center Study Shows Gender, Age Factor into Expectations

July 12, 2004

Age, gender and educational background influence what side effects a patient expects from their cancer treatment. This information can help identify patients who may benefit from early side effect management and pretreatment information preparation, according to a University of Rochester study, published July 12 in the online edition of CANCER,

Side effects from chemotherapy or radiation therapy contribute to diminished quality of life for patients at best and treatment failures at worst. More and more literature has found that a patient’s expectation for a side effect, such as nausea, predicts the development of the symptom. While much time and effort is expended characterizing the side effects of cancer therapies, little is known about what side effects patients expect to experience and what type of patient anticipates them.

“We suspect there is a powerful link between the side effect expectations a patient has and the experiences they have.  If we are able to provide them with more information and ease their concerns, their cancer treatment experience may be better,” says Maarten Hofman, M.S., of the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center. He worked with a team of investigators to characterize the side effect expectations of 938 people with cancer from throughout the country prior to treatment.

Patients anticipated an average 8.7 symptoms. Even after accounting for patients with existing similar symptoms, the most common expected side effects were fatigue, nausea, hair loss, skin problems, weight loss, pain and sleep problems.

In identifying characteristics of those who anticipated more side effects, age, gender, educational background and the type of cancer influenced expectations. Patients under 60 expected more side effects than others over 60, and women expected more symptoms than men. 

Researchers suspect those differences are tied to natural aging.  “Some older people already have seen more symptoms from other illnesses and take the cancer treatment side effects in stride,” Hofman says.  “For example, older people may have already lost some or all of their hair and don’t see this cancer-related side effect as a problem.”

The study also showed that patients with a college education anticipated more side effects than those who had only a high school education. And, patients with hematologic cancers, such as leukemia, and lung cancer expected the greatest number of side effects while those with prostate cancer expected the fewest.

Clearly, patients expect a “high number of side effects prior to cancer treatment with either chemotherapy or radiotherapy,” Hofman says.

The study was completed by the Wilmot Cancer Center’s Community Clinical Oncology Program and funded by the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society.

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