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Are cancer outcomes for older patients good enough?

written by

Leukaemia Care, Charity

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The National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN) has published a report investigating the treatment received by older cancer patients. The report highlights that cancer is increasingly prevalent in older patients, with nearly two thirds of cancer diagnoses in the over 65s and one third in people aged 75 and over. These statistics demonstrate the importance of ensuring that cancer treatment adequately meets the needs of older patients, who are the most likely to need them.

The report found that in addition to an increased chance of diagnosis in the over 65s, survival prospects were also reduced. Whilst cancer diagnoses in the over 75s account for one third of diagnoses they account for over one half of all cancer deaths. Additionally cancer diagnosis in patients over the ages of 65, which accounts for nearly two thirds of diagnoses, accounts for over three quarters of all cancer deaths. The report also found that the outcomes for older cancer patients (65 and over) were worse in the UK than in other countries. 

There are many potential causes for this increased prevalence and mortality from cancer in the over 65s. Cancer incidence increases with age partly because older people’s cells have divided more, so they have had more chances to develop the genetic mutations required to become cancerous. Additionally older people have also had more time to be exposed to carcinogens. However, whilst environmental causes may not be preventable, lifestyle causes are. It is thought that as many as forty percent of all cancers could be prevented by lifestyle changes, such as stopping smoking, reducing alcohol intake or increasing physical activity. It is important to note that it is not too late to make changes in their lifestyle.

Other potential causes of increased mortality in patients over 65 may include the fact that on average cancer in older patients is diagnosed at a later stage than normal, which means that the treatment options and their effectiveness are often reduced. This delay in diagnosis may be because older patients are less aware of the signs and symptoms of cancer or these symptoms may be confused with other conditions that affect the older population. Additionally this may make cancer diagnosis in the early stages more difficult for GPs, particularly because they see very few cases of cancer annually.

Monica Izmajlowicz, Leukaemia CARE Chief Executive, said: “The trends highlighted in this report are potentially very worrying. With the UK continuing to lag behind many of our European counterparts in terms of survival rates, it is important to note this high percentage of mortality in older patients as a key area for improvement. Essential to improving survival rates in older patients is earlier diagnosis, which requires increased patient awareness and for GPs to be given more support to enable them to spot the signs and symptoms of cancer earlier. This is why we are in the process of developing our early diagnostic e-learning tool for GPs for all blood cancers, which is set to launch next year. We want to be able to support our GPs and provide them with the knowledge to spot the symptoms of blood cancer earlier.”

To view a copy of the report, please click here.