The standard management of rectal cancer continues to be defined by the results of randomized, clinical trials exploring the optimal timing and use of adjuvant chemotherapy and radiation therapy in relation to surgery. The patient with rectal cancer who is elderly and/or has significant comorbidities and the patient who refuses surgery are clinical contexts for which there is limited current data to guide decision making.
A retrospective analysis was performed at six Australian centers of patients with rectal cancer treated with radiation therapy or chemoradiation alone because of excessive operative risk or patient refusal of surgery.
We identified 48 patients treated between August 1998 and June 2005 with a median age of 76 (range, 49-94) years. Twenty-four patients (50 percent) were considered medically inoperable and 24 patients refused surgery. Treatment was with chemoradiation (with 5-fluorouracil) in 36 patients and radiotherapy alone in 12 patients; 93 percent completed the planned therapy. A clinical complete response was seen in 56 percent and a partial response in 30 percent of patients. At a median follow-up of 49 months, 18 patients have disease progression, including 10 of 24 in the medically inoperable group and 8 of 24 in the refused surgery group. Of the 25 deceased patients, 16 died from progressive disease and 9 from noncancer causes.
Chemoradiation or radiotherapy alone is a safe alternative that results in significant progression-free and overall survival times in patients who are considered medically inoperable or refuse to undergo surgery. Ultimately, however, many patients will progress.