One-third of US cancer patients aged over 65 have at least one comorbidity, and those with lung or colorectal cancer tend to have more than one, according to new government figures. 

“For cancer patients, incorporating comorbidity measures into treatment planning may lead to better decisions about the potential risks and benefits of treatment options,” says the latest Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer. 

During 2001-10, US death rates for all cancers combined decreased by 1.8% a year among men, 1.4% annually for women and 1.9% annually among children aged 14 and under, says the Report, which is produced by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the American Cancer Society (ACS), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries (NAACCR). It is published in the journal Cancer.

Deaths from lung cancer have been dropping at a faster pace than from other cancers in recent years, but the disease still accounts for over 25% of US cancer deaths and remains “by far the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women,” said ACS chief executive John Seffrin.

And while the sustained fall in death rates for most cancers is welcome, it is “not as fast as we’d like,” noted NCI director Harold Varmus, who also pointed out that the Report emphasises “the need to consider the entire health status of cancer patients, since many have other significant medical conditions that may affect their survival.” 

The latest study finds that 40% of patients aged 66 years or older with either lung, colorectal, breast or prostate cancer have at least one comorbidity, and that the four most common comorbidities in cancer patients are diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure and cerebrovascular disease. 

High prevalence of comorbidities is reported for lung cancer (52.9%) and colorectal cancer (40.7%), while for breast cancer (32.2%) and prostate cancer (30.5%) prevalence is similar to that seen in non-cancer patients (31.8%). 

“More and more Americans are winning the battle against cancer and are living long, healthy and productive lives. However, cancer patients with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, have special challenges,” said CDC director Tom Frieden. “It’s critical for healthcare providers to have the full picture of their patients’ health so they can provide the best treatment possible for the patient overall, and for their cancer,” he emphasised.