Elderly cancer patients are being “under-treated” on the NHS because of assumptions made about their ability to cope, a charity warned today.
Some are missing out on medicines and support that would give them the best chance of beating the disease, according to Macmillan Cancer Support.
Figures show older people are less likely to receive surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy than younger people.
While this can often be medically justified, there is “growing evidence” that many older patients who could benefit from treatment are simply not being offered it, according to Macmillan’s report, The Age Old Excuse: The under-treatment of older cancer patients.
The charity said under-treatment is one of several factors contributing to around 14,000 avoidable cancer deaths among over-75s in the UK each year.
The others include late diagnosis and a higher incidence of cancer among older people.
The report said recommendations on treatment are too often being made on the basis of age, regardless of how fit patients are.
Many patients also do not take up treatment because they do not have enough practical support to help them at home or with transport.
Furthermore, older people are under-represented in clinical trials of new treatments, which means doctors do not have a wealth of evidence on benefits and risks of cancer treatment and impact on quality of life.
In a foreword to the report, Macmillan Cancer Support chief executive Ciaran Devane said: “Assumptions about someone’s ability to tolerate treatment, quality of life or personal preferences should never be based on their chronological age.
“Two people of the same age may have very different needs and will cope with cancer treatments differently.
“One 78-year-old may be bed-bound, while another may take part in half marathons.
“As such, they should be treated as individuals.
“In spite of this, chronological age is an all-too-common influencing factor in cancer treatment recommendations.
“The simple fact is that cancer mortality rates in our older population are not improving rapidly enough.
“If UK mortality rates matched those in the USA, we could prevent around 40 cancer deaths per day in people aged over 75.”