All's well that ends well? Quality of life and physical symptom clusters in long-term cancer survivors across cancer types

Alison C Zucca, Allison W Boyes, Wolfgang Linden, Afaf Girgis
Journal of Pain and Symptom Management 2012, 43 (4): 720-31

CONTEXT: Little is known about the presentation of multiple concurrent symptoms (symptom clusters) in long-term cancer survivors, with few studies adequately powered to compare quality of life (QoL) and symptom presentation by cancer type.

OBJECTIVES: This research aimed to 1) assess patient-reported QoL and 2) identify clusters of cancer-related physical symptoms by cancer type among long-term breast, prostate, colorectal, and melanoma cancer survivors.

METHODS: A population-based cross-sectional sample of 863 adult cancer survivors five to six years post-diagnosis completed the European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer Quality of Life Questionnaire (EORTC QLQ-C30), assessing global QoL and frequency of presentation of cancer-related physical symptoms.

RESULTS: Long-term survivors reported higher levels of global QoL than 1) the general population (age-adjusted mean=79.4 vs. 71.1, small clinical difference) and 2) cancer patients early in the care trajectory (age-adjusted mean=77.1 vs. 61.3, moderate clinical difference). The majority (71%) did not report any cancer-related physical symptoms; 18% reported multiple (two or more) symptoms in the past month. Factor analysis found that cognitive functioning, fatigue, insomnia, pain, dyspnea, appetite loss, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting formed a cluster (α=0.48). No symptom clusters were identified that were specific to just one cancer type. However, individual symptoms (including diarrhea, pain, constipation, and insomnia) modestly discriminated between cancer types.

CONCLUSION: Contrary to expectations, no symptom clusters specific to one type of cancer were identified and survivors reported few cancer-related symptoms and high QoL. These results convey a strong "good news" message, providing health professionals with a sound foundation for making encouraging predictions about their patients' long-term physical recovery after cancer. Cancer patients also will welcome the news that only a minority of five-year survivors experience long-term and late effects.

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