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Elderly cancer deaths rise

Cancer survival rates in the over-75s in the UK are worsening, despite improvements in care standards, say researchers

As many as 15,000 people aged 75 and over in the UK may be dying needlessly from cancer each year, according to research from the North West Cancer Intelligence Service.

Researchers said that delays in diagnosing cancer in the UK and poor treatment following diagnosis are to blame.

The findings, which will be presented to the National Cancer Intelligence Network, revealed that the number of under-75s dying from cancer had fallen, but little progress had been made to reduce the number of deaths in the over-75s. The figures also suggest that the gap between survival rates in this age group in the UK and those in Europe and the US are growing.

Cancer survival rates are calculated on the basis of those patients who are alive five years after diagnosis. Survival rate figures reveal that women over 75 are less likely to survive than those in other age groups – a statistic that cannot be explained by their age alone.

According to lead researcher from the North West Cancer Intelligence Service, Dr Tony Moran, elderly cancer patients are not benefiting from improvements made to cancer care in the last 10 years. He said that if the UK was performing as well as other countries in Western Europe in the 75-84-year-old age group, and as well as the US in the 85 and over age bracket, there would be 15,000 fewer cancer deaths in the elderly each year.

Currently, 75,000 over-75s in the UK die every year of cancer. According to researchers, UK cancer deaths in the over-85s increased by 2 per cent in eight years, while those in Europe fell by 16 per cent.

Researchers have suggested that the disparity in survival rates between the UK and Europe could be attributed to cancers related to lifestyle choices. However, they believe that this does not explain adequately the gap in survival figures, which are more likely to be related to later diagnosis and poorer treatment following diagnosis.

Dr Moran put forward a number of other reasons why UK survival rates are much lower than those of other Western nations, including lack of awareness, unwillingness to undergo intensive treatment because of side effects and the 'stiff upper lip' mentality that is so prevalent in this age group. However, he said that while all these could be factors, the truth is "we don't know why this is happening".

Professor Mike Richards, national cancer director, along with leading figures at cancer charities have called for action in addressing the needs of elderly patients with cancer. Michelle Mitchell, charity director for Age Concern and Help the Aged, said that in order to improve cancer treatment in the elderly, older people should be given “fairer access to clinical trials” and that the upper age limit for screening programmes for bowel and breast cancer should be revised.

25th June 2009

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