A significant portion of metastatic disease comes with no clear identification of a primary tumor; this is unfortunately the case with many spinal metastases. In the October 4, 2017 issue of The Journal, Ma et al. evaluate the survival and patient-reported quality-of-life (QOL) outcomes for patients with spinal metastases from cancer of unknown primary origin.
Their prospective longitudinal study confirms that a more aggressive strategy that combines surgery and radiation therapy results in better QOL (as measured with the four-domain FACT-G instrument) than radiation alone. There was no significant difference in survival time between the two groups. In a subgroup analysis of patients receiving surgery, those who underwent circumferential decompression had significantly better functional and physical well-being and higher total QOL scores than those who underwent decompressive laminectomy.
These findings emphasize the critical role of shared decision making in such difficult situations. A dire diagnosis with poor statistical chances of long-term survival does not mean that patients should not be informed of treatment options and have the opportunity to opt for an aggressive surgical approach, especially if that decision is likely to result in improved QOL. Let us endeavor to compassionately provide patients with the facts, as we understand them, and let them select from among the medical and surgical options that are at their disposal. More often than not, in this sad scenario, it seems aggressive is better in terms of quality of life.