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Cancer in later life

We need to change how we think about cancer in later life.

Cancer is primarily a disease of older people

By 2020, there will be 2m people aged 65 and over alive following a diagnosis of cancer. The likelihood of getting most types of cancer increases with age, and half of all cancers are diagnosed in people over 70.

Yet despite this, people over 75 are the only group in which death rates from cancer have increased since the 1970s. Almost a third of cancers in the over-70s are only diagnosed when a patient is admitted to hospital as an emergency.

Why is cancer in later life a big issue?

There are many reasons why cancer is a big issue for older people. These range from the low awareness of the increased risk as we age to ensuring treatment decisions for older people are based on need rather than age. Improving early diagnosis is also very important for maximising chances for long-term survival.

We need to critically assess our cancer services to ensure they are meeting the needs of an ageing population.

Doreen’s story

Doreen Shotton was Director at Age UK Mid Mersey when she was diagnosed with cancer. In this video, she shares her experiences of being diagnosed and going through treatment.

Doreen's story shows why we need change in the way we care for older people with cancer.

Spotting cancer symptoms

It’s vital that older people and GPs have cancer top-of-mind and are aware of the signs and symptoms. The earlier cancer is diagnosed, the higher the chance of successful treatment.

Symptoms include:

  • lumps anywhere on the body
  • changes in moles (a change in shape and colour, bleeding or itching)
  • jaundice
  • a recurring cough or hoarseness
  • a change in bowel habits that isn’t going away
  • any abnormal bleeding (from the vagina or back passage, in urine or when vomiting)
  • unexplained, significant weight loss (5kg, that’s about 11lb) over a couple of months.

Treating older people with cancer

It’s important to remember that many older people will respond well to and want life-prolonging cancer treatment.

Yet, there is clear evidence that older people are too often under-treated due to clinical judgments made on the basis of ‘chronological age’ rather than their overall health and fitness.

Nice Guidelines for cancer

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has produced guidance for the NHS in England and Wales on the diagnosis and treatment of many types of cancer.

The Equality Act 2010 and cancer treatment

The law is clear that age discrimination shouldn’t be happening. We need to make sure that attitudes and practice changes.

The Equality Act 2010 (Age Exceptions) Order 2012 came into force in October 2012 in relation to age discrimination and applies to public services, like the NHS.

It means that in these services it is no longer lawful, without good and sufficient reason, to provide inferior services or refuse to provide them solely because of a person's age.

Cancer help and support

The following organisations provide support for people living with or worried about cancer.

For more information call the Age UK Advice Line on 0800 169 65 65 (8am-7pm, 365 days a year).  

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Last updated: Sep 20 2022

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