Review Provides Recommendations on Cancer Treatment in the Context of Preexisting Dementia

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According to a review published by Ashley et al in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, preexisting dementia may complicate cancer care and increase the risk of worse clinical outcome and inferior patient experience. People living with dementia are more likely to have cancer diagnosed at an advanced stage and to receive no or less extensive cancer treatment, which can negatively affect survival. In addition to presenting an overview of dementia and cancer, the review authors—based in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia, as well as the United States—made pragmatic recommendations for clinicians treating cancer in patients with dementia.

“An increasing number of people are living longer, and advanced age is one of the biggest risk factors for both dementia and cancer; the co-occurrence of these two diseases is increasing as the population ages,” said coauthor Nicole Fowler, PhD, of the Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University School of Medicine. “It’s a tough scenario for patients, their caregivers, and clinicians. People with dementia may not be able to describe symptoms that might alert a physician early on to a developing or existing cancer. Also, screening for cancer and cancer treatment can add additional burden to patients with dementia and their caregivers.”

Dementia prevalence increases steeply with age, approximately doubling every 5 years after age 65.

“Few guidelines exist to support oncologists’ understanding of how best to talk with patients with dementia, identify their ability to participate in decision-making about cancer treatment, and work with families to identify their goals for cancer care and treatment,” continued Dr. Fowler. “Oncologists need to navigate carefully between underdiagnosis and undertreatment and overdiagnosis and overtreatment, ensuring that a dementia diagnosis informs—but doesn’t automatically rule out or specify—any particular course of action.”

“Optimal cancer care for people living with dementia needs quality indicators and targets that recognize the patient’s functional status—a patient with moderate cognitive impairment [diagnosed with cancer] may be treated differently than someone in the end stage of the disease—and the personal preferences of the patient and family caregiver,” she added.

Key Review Recommendations

The paper includes a dozen pragmatic recommendations for oncologists treating patients living with dementia:

  • Identify preexisting dementia in patients as soon as possible and document it in patient records.
  • Involve caregivers and support their emotional, financial, and other needs.
  • Review decision-making capacity and legal decision-making powers, as well as verify advance medical directives.
  • Consider and make reasonable adjustments to cancer-related care and treatment.
  • Minimize the risk of poorly controlled pain and other symptoms and side effects, including dementia decline.
  • Reduce the risk of emergency presentation for medical care.
  • Increase dementia knowledge and training among cancer clinicians.
  • Provide information and communicate in dementia-friendly ways, like using simple language, pictures, and recap; supplying take-away summaries; giving warm, empathetic, nonverbal communication; and communicating directly with other involved clinicians (and keeping them updated).
  • Allow more time for patients with dementia.
  • Make clinical environments more dementia-friendly.
  • Minimize and improve care-related travel for people with dementia, including remote and mobile care options and parking.
  • Establish features, pathways, and models of cancer care that support caring for people with dementia.

The authors noted, “Protection from harm is an intensified concern because of the increased vulnerability of people living with dementia to the potential harms inherent in receiving cancer screening, diagnosis, and treatment, and because of concerns about additional harms uniquely related to preexisting dementia.”

The authors concluded, “Coming years are likely to see cancer care for people with dementia become a bigger and more salient challenge because of population aging and as medical advancements (eg, single blood test multicancer screening, targeted therapies with lower toxicity) potentially improve the feasibility and tolerability of cancer detection and treatment options. We make comprehensive recommendations for clinical practice and future research to help clinicians and providers deliver best and equitable cancer care for people with dementia and their families.”

Disclosure: For full disclosures of the study authors, visit

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.