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UK cancer survival rates for over 65s worst in Europe

Too often patients judged on age, not treatment needs, says cancer charity

Caroline White

Friday, 24 January 2014

UK cancer survival rates for people over 65 are among the worst in Europe, yet with the right treatment older people can survive for many years, says research by Macmillan Cancer Support and the National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN).

Too many people are being assessed on their age alone rather than their overall fitness, so may not get the treatment they need, says Macmillan. Healthcare professionals need more specialist training in elderly care, says the charity.

More than 130,000 people in the UK have survived for at least 10 years after being diagnosed with cancer at 65 or over, according to new research by Macmillan Cancer Support and the National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN).

This figure shows that, with the right care and treatment, over-65s in the UK can live for many years after cancer. But if UK survival rates in this age group were not so poor, this number would be even higher, says Macmillan.

It believes too many older patients in the UK are being assessed on their age alone and not their overall fitness.

The research, which is the first of its kind, also reveals that there are more than 8000 people alive today who have survived for at least 10 years after being diagnosed at the age of 80 or over.

But there are almost twice as many long-term (10-20 years) female survivors who were diagnosed at 80 or over as there are male (5,481 compared with 2,995).

Seventy eight-year-old Gerald Shenton, who was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2000, is still going strong.

“I never really had any aftercare because I have always been treated as end stage. I was turned down for a possible treatment twice, being told unofficially that it was because of my age, although I did finally get some good emotional support through my hospital,” he explains.

A recent international study*, published in The Lancet Oncology, showed that for many common cancers, such as prostate, female breast, lung, stomach, ovary, kidney, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the UK and Ireland have a lower five-year survival rate than the rest of Europe.

And the gap is generally greatest for patients over the age of 75. For example, the survival rate for lung cancer in the UK and Ireland is 9% worse than the European average for adults aged under 45, but 44% worse for those aged 75 or over.

Ciarán Devane, Chief Executive at Macmillan Cancer Support, says: 'It’s wrong to write off older people as too old for treatment. With a proper assessment and appropriate treatment, our research shows that many older cancer patients can live for a long time and can even be cured.”

'While it’s good news that so many older people are benefitting from treatment, many thousands more could live longer if our survival rates for over 65s matched those in comparable countries,” he added.

“The barriers to getting treatment – which include age discrimination and inadequate assessment methods – must be tackled now so more older people can survive cancer and live for many years,” he insisted.

“It is vital that all patients receive the best and most effective treatment based on the nature of their cancer and their fitness for treatment and that chronological age alone is not the deciding factor,” commented Dr Mick Peake, NCIN clinical lead.

“We know that cancer survival rates in older patients in many other countries are better than in the UK and ensuring optimal treatment at all ages is the way of tackling this issue,” he added.

Macmillan Cancer Support is calling on all health providers in England to adopt assessment methods that test a patient’s overall physical and mental wellbeing to ensure treatment decisions aren’t based on age alone.

Health professionals should be given the time and resources to complete specialist training in elderly care to ensure services are accessible and provide the best quality care irrespective of age, it says.

And they should work with the voluntary sector, social services and teams specialising in dementia, falls, and continence to ensure that there are no issues that may be preventing an older person from getting the treatment they need. |


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