As increasing numbers of patients in their 80s, 90s, and even 100s present for possible Mohs micrographic surgery, surgeons are confronted with deciding when the risks of treatment may outweigh the benefits.
In one of two presentations at the annual meeting of the American College of Mohs Surgery that addressed this topic, Howard W. Rogers, MD, of Advanced Dermatology in Norwich, Conn., said that the crux of the issue is the concern not to undertreat. He noted that reduced access to dermatologic care during the pandemic has provided a stark lesson in the risks of delaying treatment in all age groups. “Mohs surgeons have all seen the consequences of delayed treatment due to the pandemic with enormous, destructive, and sometimes fatal cancers coming to the office in the last year,” he told this news organization.
“Pandemic-related treatment delay has caused increased suffering and morbidity for countless skin cancer patients across the U.S.,” he said. “In general, not treating skin cancer and hoping it’s not going to grow or having significant delays in treatment are a recipe for disastrous outcomes.”
That said, active monitoring may be appropriate “for select small cancers that tend to grow slowly in the very elderly,” added Dr. Rogers, the incoming ACMS president. Among the key situations where the benefits of active monitoring may outweigh the risks of surgery are small, slowly growing cancers, when frailty is an issue.
Frailty has been equated to compromised functionality, which can increase the risk of an array of complications, including prolonged wound healing and secondary complications stemming from immobility. The toll those issues can take on patients’ quality of life can be considerable, Dr. Rogers said.
When weighing treatment options with elderly patients, he emphasized that careful consideration should be given to whether the “time needed to benefit from a Mohs procedure is longer than the patient’s life expectancy.” Furthermore, a decision not to treat does not have to be the last word. “We need to have an honest dialogue on the consequences of nontreatment, but part of that should be that just because we don’t treat today, doesn’t mean we can’t treat it tomorrow, if necessary.”
Of note, he added, “more than 100,00 patients have surgery for basal cell carcinoma [BCC] in their last year of life.” And that figure will likely rise exponentially if population projections come to fruition, considering that the population of people over the age of 85 is predicted to increase to nearly 18 million in 2050, from 5.8 million in 2012, Dr. Rogers said.
Until more research emerges on how to best treat this age group, Dr. Rogers noted that experts recommend that for elderly patients, “treatment should be individualized with consideration of active monitoring of primary BCC that is not in the H-zone, asymptomatic, smaller than 1 cm, with treatment initiated if there is substantial growth or symptoms.” Ultimately, he urged surgeons to “be sensitive and treat our patients like ourselves or our family members.”