Last year I took part in a fundraising event for Macmillan Cancer Support. Together with a group of friends, I raised money by hosting a Really Good Night In. We had a normal Friday night in drinking and eating to fundraise to provide support to people diagnosed with cancer. It was designed for those of us who prefer our sport televised and don’t have Mary Berry or Paul Hollywood-type culinary skills.
The weirdest thing about the evening was that we avoided all talk of the C-word. What this got me thinking about is whether talking about cancer is a taboo. Over the past few weeks I have started to see a few news stories suggesting none of us, no matter what our age, really have a ‘typical’ response to cancer. It is something all generations dread, so many of us prefer not to think or talk about. But this can have devastating results.
New research shows that 130,000 people diagnosed with cancer aged 65 or over have survived it for more than a decade. Yet UK survival rates for older people with cancer remain among the worst in Europe. Every year there are around 14,000 avoidable cancer deaths in people over 75.
A recent survey of health professionals revealed that 45% have dealt with a cancer patient who has been refused treatment on the grounds they were too old. Furthermore, 67% of them have heard older cancer patients spoken to in a condescending or dismissive way. Worse still, 48% think assumptions about older people are resulting in them not getting the best treatment.
It is not altogether clear why so many older people are refused treatment or find their healthcare needs less of a priority. All the more reason for the Be Clear on Cancer campaign which highlights that breast cancer survival is lower in women aged over 70 than in younger women. What’s more, research shows that older women have low awareness of non-lump breast cancer symptoms and are more likely to delay visiting their GP.
Frankly, we also need political campaigns to tackle – not a taboo – but something altogether worse. The systemic issues in our health service which, for whatever reason, see older patients experiencing lower survival rates than people of a similar age in the rest of Europe. So Macmillan has rightly taken the lead where hopefully older people’s organisations and ultimately the NHS can follow. Advocating age-neutral approaches to cancer treatment and making sure adults get help based on their clinical needs and not their age. After all, as campaign ambassador Patrick Stewart says, “Age is just a number”.