Why do some cancer patients die shortly after diagnosis?

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About 39 people are diagnosed with cancer in Singapore every day, according to the Singapore Cancer Society. There are also 15 people dying from cancer each day and one in four people can develop the disease in their lifetime. 

Research has also shown that Singapore has the highest breast cancer incidence in Asia where approximately 270 women in Singapore die from the disease each year.

Although there is still no cure for any type of cancer, the silver lining is that there are treatments that may be able to help prolong life — some cancer patients live for decades longer. 

For some, however, that isn’t the case and some patients die from the disease within a few weeks or months. 

We explore the factors that could explain why some people die shortly after being diagnosed with cancer.

1. The cancer is highly malignant 

With a malignant type of cancer, the cells are cancerous: they can invade and kill nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body. 

An unexpected earlier death from cancer could be due to the advanced and biologically aggressive disease by the time of diagnosis.

There can be varying degrees to how malignant cancer can be even when cancers develop in the same organ. Highly malignant cancers generally refer to “poorly differentiated” or “undifferentiated” cancer cells. They are said to have lost the ability to function like normal cells, which results in uncontrolled growth.

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Apart from having a low survival rate of five years, these type of cancerous cells grows and multiply very quickly, thereby dimming the chance of successful treatment. 

These common types of cancers include:

  • Small cell lung cancer
  • Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) — accounts for about 10 to 15 per cent of all breast cancers
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Anaplastic thyroid cancer (or also known as undifferentiated thyroid cancer) — the most advanced and aggressive thyroid cancer

Patients with these types of aggressive cancers are said to have a higher chance of death even after undergoing treatment. 

Anaplastic thyroid cancer, for instance, can be said to be the most malignant type of thyroid cancer where most patients do not live past a year from the onset of the disease. 

2. Disease was discovered late

The stage of cancer is more often than not, closely linked to the effect of the treatment.

In typical cases when the cancer has spread, it signals that cancer has already advanced to the middle and late stages, making treatment even more difficult.

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Even with more advanced treatment options, the effectiveness of the treatment for those with advanced cancer does not appear to be promising and the recurrence rate after treatment is also relatively high. 

In cases of advanced cancer, the chance of undergoing surgery could be stripped away as the disease is known to deteriorate rapidly or lead to death within a few months. 

3. Oncologic emergencies

Many oncologic emergencies are signs of advanced, end-stage malignant disease.

Some patients with advanced cancer can find themselves in an acute, potentially life-threatening condition that has developed due to the disease and/or its treatment. 

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This could happen when the tumour ruptures and causes haemorrhage, or that the tumour obstructs the airway and causes breathing difficulties and breathlessness. 

Oncologic emergencies can be said to be extremely dangerous and can lead to the death of cancer patients in a very short period of time.

4. Non-cancer related causes 

Cancer is a very complex disease and its effects can vary greatly with each and every individual.

Some patients and their family members might even be misled by rumours that chemoradiation is detrimental to health, causing the patient to die faster. This could lead them to fear or show resistance to treatments such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy. 

However, there are some, if not many cancer patients who die not from cancer but due to some coincidental cause, including:

  • Old age
  • Car accidents
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease

While not everything is known about cancer yet, the early detection and treatment of cancer could mean more optimistic outcomes for patients.

ALSO READ: She’s 28, had a double mastectomy to remove her breasts because of cancer and hid it from her mum

It might be a fearful experience to encounter cancer, but it will greatly help to take the necessary steps to better understand it for the sake of your own health.

This article was first published in theAsianparent.