Patient Care

Chemotherapy Does Not Improve Quality of Life with End-Stage Cancer


Clinical question: Does palliative chemotherapy improve quality of life (QOL) in patients with end-stage cancer, regardless of performance status?

Background: There is continued debate about the benefit of palliative chemotherapy at the end of life. Guidelines recommend a good performance score as an indicator of appropriate use of therapy; however, little is known about the benefits and harms of chemotherapy in metastatic cancer patients stratified by performance status.

Study design: Longitudinal, prospective cohort study.

Setting: Multi-institutional in the United States.

Synopsis: Five U.S. institutions enrolled 661 patients with metastatic cancer and estimated life expectancy less than six months; 312 patients who died during the study period were included in the final analysis of postmortem questionnaires of caretakers regarding QOL in the patients’ last week of life. Contrary to current thought, the study demonstrated that patients undergoing end-of-life palliative chemotherapy with good ECOG performance status (0-1) had significantly worse QOL than those avoiding palliative chemotherapy. There was no difference in QOL in patients with worse performance status (ECOG 2-3).

This study is one of the first prospective investigations of this topic and makes a compelling case for withholding palliative chemotherapy at the end of life regardless of performance status. The study is somewhat limited in that the QOL measurement is only for the last week of life and the patients were not randomized into the chemotherapy arm, which could bias results.

Bottom line: Palliative chemotherapy does not improve QOL near death, and may actually worsen QOL in patients with good performance status.

Citation: Prigerson HG, Bao Y, Shah MA, et al. Chemotherapy use, performance status, and quality of life at the end of life. JAMA Oncol. 2015;1(6):778-784.

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