Performance Status, Molecular Testing Key to Metastatic Cancer Prognosis

Bruce Jancin, MDedge News

August 25, 2020

Performance status and molecular testing results are key tools in prognosticating for patients with newly diagnosed metastatic solid tumors, according to Sam Brondfield, MD, MA, an inpatient medical oncologist at the University of California, San Francisco.


Oncologists have at their fingertips a voluminous and ever-growing body of clinical trials data to draw on for prognostication. Yet many hospitalists will be surprised to learn that this wealth of information is of little value in the inpatient settings where they work, he said at HM20 Virtual, hosted by the Society of Hospital Medicine.

"The applicability of clinical trials data to hospitalized patients is generally poor. That's an important caveat to keep in mind," Dr. Brondfield said.

Enrollment in clinical trials is usually restricted to patients with a score of 0 or 1 on the Eastern Clinical Oncology Group Performance Status, meaning their cancer is causing minimal or no disruption to their life (see graphic). Sometimes trials will include patients with a performance status of 2 on the ECOG scale, a tool developed nearly 40 years ago, but clinical trials virtually never enroll those with an ECOG status of 3 or 4. Yet most hospitalized patients with metastatic cancer have an ECOG performance status of 3 or worse. Thus, the clinical trials outcome data are of little relevance.

"In oncology the distinction between ECOG 2 and 3 is very important," Dr. Brondfield emphasized.

When he talks about treatment options with hospitalized patients who have metastatic cancer and poor performance status – that is, ECOG 3 or 4 – he'll often say: "Assuming you feel better and can go home, that's when these clinical trial data may apply better to you."

Dr. Brondfield cautioned against quoting the National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) 5-year overall survival data when hospitalized patients with advanced cancer ask how long they have to live. For one thing, the national average 5-year overall survival figure is hardly an individualized assessment. Plus, oncology is a fast-moving field in which important treatment advances occur all the time, and the SEER data lag far behind. For example, when Dr. Brondfield recently looked up the current SEER 5-year survival for patients diagnosed with metastatic non–small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), the figure quoted was less than 6%, and it was drawn from data accrued in 2009-2015. That simply doesn't reflect contemporary practice.

Indeed, it's no longer true that the average survival of patients with metastatic NSCLC is less than a year. In the practice-changing KEYNOTE-189 randomized trial, which accrued participants in 2016-2017, the median overall survival of patients randomized to pembrolizumab (Keytruda) plus standard cytotoxic chemotherapy was 22 months, compared with 11 months with chemotherapy plus placebo (J Clin Oncol. 2020 May 10. doi: 10.1200/JCO.19.03136). As a result, immunotherapy with a programmed death–1 inhibitor such as pembrolizumab in combination with chemotherapy is now standard practice in patients with metastatic NSCLC without targetable mutations.

Performance Status Guides Treatment Decision-Making

Hospitalists can help oncologists in decision-making regarding whether to offer palliative systemic therapy to patients with advanced metastatic cancer and poor performance status by determining whether that status is caused by the cancer itself or some other cause that's not easily reversible, such as liver failure.

Take, for example, the inpatient with advanced SCLC. This is an aggressive and chemosensitive cancer. Dr. Brondfield said he is among many medical oncologists who are convinced that, if poor performance status in a patient with advanced SCLC is caused by the cancer itself, prompt initiation of inpatient chemotherapy should be recommended to elicit a response that improves quality of life and performance status in the short term. If, on the other hand, the poor performance status is caused by organ failure or some other issue that can't easily be improved, hospice may be more appropriate.

"The contour of SCLC over time is that despite its treatment responsiveness it inevitably recurs. But with chemotherapy you can give people in this situation months of quality time, so we generally try to treat these sorts of patients," Dr. Brondfield explained.

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines upon which oncologists rely leave lots of room for interpretation regarding the appropriateness of inpatient chemotherapy in patients with advanced cancer and poor patient performance status. Citing "knowledge that's been passed down across oncology generations," Dr. Brondfield said he and many of his colleagues believe early palliative supportive care rather than systemic cytotoxic cancer-directed therapy is appropriate for patients with poor performance status who have one of several specific relatively nonchemoresponsive types of metastatic cancer. These include esophageal, gastric, and head and neck cancers.

On the other hand, advanced SCLC isn't the only type of metastatic cancer that's so chemosensitive that he and many other oncologists believe aggressive chemotherapy should be offered even in the face of poor patient performance status attributable to the cancer itself.

Take, for example, colorectal cancer with no more than five metastases to the lung or liver, provided those metastases are treatable with resection or radiation. "Those patients are actually curable at a high rate. They have about a 30%-40% cure rate. So those patients, even if they have poor performance status, if we can get them up for surgery or radiation, we usually do try to treat them aggressively," Dr. Brondfield said.

There are other often chemoresponsive metastatic cancers for which oncologists frequently recommend aggressive treatment to improve quality of life in patients with poor performance status. These cancers include aggressive lymphomas, which are actually often curable; multiple myeloma; testicular and germ cell cancers; NSCLC with a targetable mutation, which is often responsive to oral medications; and prostate and well-differentiated thyroid cancers, which can usually be treated with hormone- or iodine-based therapies rather than more toxic intravenous cytotoxic chemotherapy.

The impact of inpatient palliative chemotherapy in patients with poor performance status and advanced solid cancers not on the short list of highly chemosensitive cancers has not been well studied. A recent retrospective study of 228 such patients who received inpatient palliative chemotherapy at a large Brazilian academic medical center provided little reason for enthusiasm regarding the practice. Survival was short, with 30- and 60-day survival rates of 56% and 39%, respectively. Plus, 30% of patients were admitted to the ICU, where they received aggressive and costly end-of-life care. The investigators found these results suggestive of overprescribing of inpatient palliative chemotherapy (BMC Palliat Care. 2019 May 20;18[1]:42. doi: 10.1186/s12904-019-0427-4).

Of note, the investigators found in a multivariate analysis that an elevated bilirubin was associated with a 217% increased risk of 30-day mortality, and hypercalcemia was associated with a 119% increased risk.

"That's something to take into account when these decisions are being made," Dr. Brondfield advised.

In response to an audience comment that oncologists often seem overly optimistic about prognosis, Dr. Brondfield observed, "I think it's very common for there to be a disagreement between the oncologist wanting to be aggressive for a sick inpatient and the hospitalist or generalist provider thinking: 'This person looks way too sick for chemotherapy.' "

For this reason he is a firm believer in having multidisciplinary conversations regarding prognosis in challenging situations involving hospitalized patients with advanced cancer. An oncologist can bring to such discussions a detailed understanding of clinical trial and molecular data as well as information about the patient's response to the first round of therapy. But lots of other factors are relevant to prognosis, including nutritional status, comorbidities, and the intuitive eyeball test of how a patient might do. The patient's family, primary care provider, oncologist, the hospitalist, and the palliative care team will have perspectives of their own.

Molecular testing is now the norm in metastatic cancers

These days oncologists order molecular testing for most patients with metastatic carcinomas to determine eligibility for targeted therapy, suitability for participation in clinical trials, prognostication, and/or assistance in determining the site of origin if that's unclear.

A single-pass fine needle aspiration biopsy doesn't provide enough tissue for molecular testing. It's therefore important to order initially a multipass fine needle aspiration to avoid the need for a repeat biopsy, which is uncomfortable for the patient and can delay diagnosis and treatment.

Dr. Brondfield advised waiting for molecular testing results to come in before trying to prognosticate in patients with a metastatic cancer for which targetable mutations might be present. Survival rates can vary substantially depending upon those test results. Take, for example, metastatic NSCLC: Just within the past year, clinical trials have been published reporting overall survival rates of 39 months in patients with treatable mutations in epidermal growth factor receptor, 42 months with anaplastic lymphoma kinase mutations, and 51 months in patients whose tumor signature features mutations in c-ros oncogene 1, as compared with 22 months with no targetable mutations in the KEYNOTE-189 trial.

"There's a lot of heterogeneity around how metastatic tumors behave and respond to therapy. Not all metastatic cancers are the same," the oncologist emphasized.

This article originally appeared on The Hospitalist, an official publication of the Society of Hospital Medicine.


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