March 25, 2012

UK: Failure to treat elderly cancer sufferers 'is costing 14,000 lives each year'

LONDON, England / The Daily Mail / Health / March 25, 2012

By Sophie Borland

Scandal: Britain has one of the worst cancer survival rates in the Western world
because elderly patients are too easily ruled out for surgery. (Posed by models)

Up to 40 elderly cancer sufferers are dying needlessly every day because they are being denied the best treatments, a damning report warns.

Patients over the age of 70 are routinely being ‘written off’ by doctors who assume they are too frail for surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

Such discrimination has led to Britain having one of the worst cancer survival rates in the Western world, according to Macmillan Cancer Support.

The charity estimates that if the treatment of older patients matched that on offer in the U.S., as many as 14,000 lives could be saved every year.

Ciaran Devane, chief executive of Macmillan, described it as an ‘unacceptable act of discrimination’.

In the report, he points out that while cancer rates are vastly improving across most age groups, they have actually worsened in patients aged 85 and above.

And despite major advances in diagnosis and treatment, the survival chances for patients over the age of 75 have only increased by a fraction.

Mr Devane said: ‘Writing people off as too old for treatment is utterly shameful. We have a moral duty to treat people as individuals and give them the best chance of beating cancer, regardless of their age.

‘The NHS and social care providers must wake up to the specific issues older people face and ensure treatment decisions are based on their overall health, not just their date of birth.’
The report warns that many doctors are wary of offering elderly patients surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy as they are more likely to suffer debilitating side effects, including sickness and extreme tiredness.

The body is also more prone to infection which can cause death.

While cancer survival rates have improved for
most other age groups, they have actually
worsened for those aged over 85.

Many doctors are also often worried about putting patients forward for treatment if they have illnesses such as dementia and diabetes in case their drugs or the condition itself causes complications.

But the report urges doctors to look at patients’ health and physical fitness rather than their date of birth.

It points out that while one 78-year-old may be bed-bound, another might be running half-marathons.

Figures cited in the report show that only 36 per cent of cancer patients in England over the age of 75 are likely to survive their illness.

This compares with 49 per cent in Sweden, 45 per cent in Germany and 40 per cent across Europe as a whole.

The most recent figures show that between 1995-97 and 2003-05, cancer mortality rates dropped by 17 per cent for those under 75.

By contrast, they fell by only 6 per cent in the 75-84 age group and they actually increased by 2 per cent among the over-85s.

Professor Riccardo Audisio, a breast cancer surgeon at St Helens Hospital in the Wirral, admitted: ‘We have huge evidence of under-treatment for these patients.

‘It is despicable to neglect, not to offer, not to even go near to the best treatment option only on the simple basis of the patient’s age. This has been a horrible mistake that, particularly in the UK, we have suffered from.’

Last year, research found that only 54 per cent of breast cancer patients over 70 were given surgery compared with 85 per cent of younger patients.

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