What are the consequences of antibiotic resistance for cancer patients?

When antibiotics are no longer effective against resistant bacteria, it can have serious consequences for cancer treatment, and this will have great significance in the future.

It is estimated that 1 in 5 cancer patients need antibiotics during their cancer treatment (pdf). Here in Norway, the Oslo University Hospital reports that 20 percent of their cancer patients under treatment receive antibiotics. Some cancer types, such as acute leukemia and bone marrow cancer (multiple myeloma) for example, cannot be treated without antibiotics.

In Norway, 3 out of 4 patients survive cancer. What will the future look like?

Antibiotic resistant bacteria will set cancer treatment back for decades, while the incidence of cancer cases will continue to rise in the years to come. For the patients, this may mean higher mortality, more difficult and more expensive treatment, and many side and late effects. Many treatment options will disappear entirely. Antibiotic resistance will also have major consequences for the patients’ interactions with healthcare personnel and family members whereby protective «yellow coats», isolation and confinement rooms will be required.

How does antibiotic resistance affect the various treatment methods?

Bacterial infection is one of the most common complications among cancer patients. A weakened immune system and infections can prove life-threatening for patients with serious diseases. After surgery, many patients require antibiotics to treat infected wounds. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy kill cancer cells, but also cells that are part of our defence mechanism against infections. This means that patients who receive radiation or chemotherapy often develop infections that require treatment with antibiotics. Transplantations and immunotherapy are also impossible to perform without antibiotics.

Read more about the dangers associated with antibiotic resistant bacteria: Potential burden of antibiotic resistance on surgery and cancer chemotherapy antibiotic prophylaxis in the USA: a literature review and modelling study (thelancet.com).

Treatment options, such as the following, will disappear entirely

  • Treatment for acute leukemia will be impossible without effective antibiotics. This will affect approximatively 200 to 250 adult patients in Norway each year.
  • In Norway, approx. 50 children between the ages of 0 and 15 were diagnosed with acute leukemia in 2015. Current treatment would not work for these patients without antibiotics.
  • Treatment for cancer types which are treated with high-dose autologous stem cell support (HMAS), such as bone marrow cancer, is performed on 150 to 200 patients every year in Norway. Allogeneic stem cell transplantations are performed on approx. 120 to 130 adults and children.
  • Cancer diagnosis will become more difficult. There are already major concerns that prostate biopsies will present high risks for patients with antibiotic resistant bacteria in the bowels.

Do you have any questions?

Antimicrobial resistance and its devastating consequences for cancer treatment have attracted far too little attention. If we do nothing, we risk having to witness that important progress made in cancer treatment can be set back decades. Please do not hesitate to contact us.

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