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Hodgkin's Lymphoma: Patient Age Matters

Flip Saunders

Hodgkin's Lymphoma is considered to be a very curable and treatable form of cancer. That's why it was shocking when it was announced Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders passed away after battling the illness since earlier this summer.

"Hodgkin's Lymphoma is most commonly seen in people in their 20s and 30s. In those ages the survival rate is around 85%," says John Sweetenham, MD, a medical oncologist with Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. "When a patient develops Hodgkin's later in life they don't do as well. The survival rate drops to around 50 percent."

Saunders was diagnosed with Hodgkin's at the age of 60.

It is important to realize that, when it comes to Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Saunders case is the exception, not the rule. In the past 30 years advances in treatment have meant that more people survive. Of the 9,000 estimated cases that are diagnosed each year the American Cancer Society says there are only 1,000 associated deaths.

The treatment for Hodgkin's Lymphoma usually involves chemotherapy and possibly radiation depending on how extensively it has spread. Some older patients may have reactions to the drugs that aren't seen in younger patients. "We don't really know why. It is something we are still trying to understand," says Sweetenham. "There is also research being done into alternate drugs for older patients."

The reactions to the medications used to treat Hodgkin's can affect the likeliness of a patient's recovery. While the details of Saunders' illness have not been disclosed he may have suffered pulmonary complications. "One of the drugs has a tendency to cause damage to the lungs, especially in older patients," says Sweetenham. "That only happens in six to 10 percent of cases."

Saunders had coached more than 1,200 NBA games, and had coached in Minnesota since 2013.