Red blood cell transfusions are common in patients undergoing gastrointestinal cancer surgery. Yet, to adequately balance their risks and benefits, clinicians must understand how transfusions may affect long-term outcomes. We aimed to determine if perioperative red blood cell transfusions are associated with a higher risk of all-cause and cancer-specific death among patients who underwent gastrointestinal cancer resection.
We identified a population-based cohort of patients who underwent gastrointestinal cancer resection in Ontario, Canada (2007–2019). All-cause death was compared between transfused and nontransfused patients using Cox proportional hazards regression while cancer-specific death was compared with competing risk regression.
A total of 74,962 patients (mean age, 67.7 years; 55.4% male; 79.7% colorectal cancer) had gastrointestinal cancer surgery during the study period; 20.8% received perioperative red blood cell transfusions. Patients who received red blood cell transfusions had increased hazards of all-cause and cancer-specific death relative to patients who did not (hazard ratio: 1.39, 95% confidence interval 1.34–1.44; cause-specific hazard ratio: 1.36, 1.30–1.43). The adjusted risk of all-cause death was higher in early follow-up intervals (3–6 months postoperatively) but remained elevated in each interval over 5 years. The association persisted after restricting to patients without postoperative complications or bleeding and was robust to unmeasured confounding.
Red blood cell transfusion among patients with gastrointestinal cancer is associated with increased all-cause death. This was observed long beyond the immediate postoperative period and independent of short-term postoperative morbidity and mortality. These findings should help clinicians balance the risks and benefits of transfusion before well-designed trials are conducted in this patient population.
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