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'Ageist' attitudes threaten elderly cancer care

Ageism in the NHS prevents older cancer patients from accessing the treatment they deserve, a survey of health professionals shows.

Almost half of oncologists, cancer clinical nurse specialists and GPs (45%) said they have witnessed cancer patients being refused treatment on the grounds they were “too old”.

The research by Macmillan Cancer Support also found more than two thirds (67%) have heard health professionals speak to older cancer patients in a “condescending or dismissive way”.

The UK has some of the worst cancer survival rates in Europe for older people with the number of those aged 65 and over with cancer set to rocket from 1.3m to 4.1m during the next 20 years.

In light of the survey findings, Macmillan has called on healthcare providers to adopt assessment methods that test a patient's overall physical and mental wellbeing - including cognition, mental wellbeing, nutrition and social and financial circumstances - to ensure treatment decisions are not based on age alone.The charity is also encouraging more specialist training for health professionals in elderly care to reduce age discrimination in the NHS.

Ciarán Devane, chief executive at Macmillan Cancer Support, said health professionals' concerns about the prevalence of age discrimination in cancer care “mustn't be ignored”.

“Unless staff are given the time and training to carry out a proper assessment of a patient's overall physical and mental wellbeing, some patients will be unfairly written-off as “too old” for treatment,” he said.

“The right practical support, whether it's transport or help with caring responsibilities must also be put in place so older people needing treatment can actually take it up.
“Unless the barriers to timely treatment are tackled now, many older people could die unnecessarily from cancer and services will become unaffordable.”

Dr Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said those nursing working with cancer patients “will be very sad” to learn that the best treatment is not always being offered to their patients on the grounds of age.  

“At a time when nurse specialist roles and access to services are being reviewed, it is important that we do not allow ageism to creep into those decision making processes and by demonstrating that we are listening to older people about their needs when dealing with cancer,” he said.