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Poorer Outcomes for Patients With Lung Cancer Undergoing Radiotherapy During Disaster-Level Hurricanes

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Key Points

  • For the group experiencing a hurricane disaster during treatment, the total number of deaths was 1,408, mean survival time was 29 months, and 5-year survival estimate was 14.5%. For the unexposed group, the total number of deaths was 1,331, mean survival time was 31 months, and 5-year survival estimate was 15.4%.
  • Patients affected by a hurricane disaster had longer radiation treatment durations (average 66.9 vs 46.2 days) and significantly worse overall survival than matched unexposed patients.
  • The adjusted relative risk for death increased with the length of disaster declaration, reaching 1.27 for disasters lasting 27 days.

Patients who experienced a disaster-level hurricance during radiotherapy for lung cancer had worse overall survival than those who completed treatment in normal circumstances, with longer disaster declarations associated with increasingly worse survival. These findings come from a research letter published by Nogueira et al in JAMA, which suggests several mitigation strategies, including arranging for transferring treatment and eliminating patient out-of-network insurance charges during disasters.

Natural disasters such as hurricanes can interrupt the provision of oncology care. Radiotherapy is particularly vulnerable because it requires dependable electrical power and daily presence of specialized teams and patients for treatment delivery. Disruptions are especially concerning for patients undergoing treatment for locally advanced non–small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) because treatment delays for as little as 2 days can impact survival.

Methods

To learn whether hurricane disasters were associated with poorer survival, investigators led by Leticia Nogueira, PhD, MPH, of the American Cancer Society, compared outcomes for patients undergoing radiotherapy for nonoperative locally advanced NSCLC between 2004 and 2014 from the National Cancer Database. Among those, 1,734 patients who had a hurricane disaster declared during radiation treatment were propensity score-matched with an equal number of unexposed patients, who completed treatment at the same facility at times when no disaster was declared, on radiotherapy start month, sex, age, stage, tumor spread to lymph nodes, and zip code–level median income quintile. 

Results

For the group experiencing a hurricane disaster during treatment, the total number of deaths was 1,408, mean survival time was 29 months, and 5-year survival estimate was 14.5%. For the unexposed group, the total number of deaths was 1,331, mean survival time was 31 months, and 5-year survival estimate was 15.4%. Patients affected by a hurricane disaster had longer radiation treatment durations (average 66.9 vs 46.2 days) and significantly worse overall survival than matched unexposed patients.

The adjusted relative risk for death increased with the length of disaster declaration, reaching 1.27 for disasters lasting 27 days. The association became nonsignificant after 30 or more days, but only 19 declarations out of the 101 included in the study lasted that long.

Factors Studied

The strengths of the study include its use of a large national sample with detailed sociodemographic, clinical, and treatment information and adequate follow-up periods. The limitations include lack of information about smoking history, performance status, treatment toxicity, reasons for or exact dates of treatment breaks, and other hurricane disaster-associated factors (eg, displacement, mental health status, and physical functioning).

“While we could not analyze every potentially explanatory factor for the poorer outcomes in our study, treatment delay is one of the few hurricane-related disruptions that can actually be prevented,” said Dr. Nogueira. “[Patients with cancer] receiving radiotherapy are a vulnerable population, and right now, there are no recommended strategies to mitigate treatment delays, so disaster management efforts that include tactics to identify patients, arrange for their treatment to be transferred, and to eliminate out-of-network insurance charges should be considered.”

The authors also added that research is needed to evaluate the potential impact of other types of natural disasters on cancer and other diseases and their treatments.

Disclosure: For full disclosures of the study authors, visit jamanetwork.com.

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®.


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