Research commissioned by Cancer Research UK and the National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN) has revealed a trend in treatments for a number of cancers which seems to indicate a reluctance to operate on elderly patients.
In the cases examined this applied even to those cancers for which surgery is regarded as the only viable treatment likely to provide a positive outcome.
The study focused on 21 different surgical procedures for different types of cancer across 350,000 cases in England.
For all but two of the procedures the case histories showed that doctors were far more likely to recommend surgery for younger patients than their older counterparts.
In total, 59% of sufferers under the age of 55 underwent surgery compared to only 23% of the older group.
The differential in particular cases was even more stark; 80% of women under the age of 55 with ovarian cancer had operations, this figure drops to 37% for the over 75s.
75% of men and women in the younger age group with kidney cancer had operations, compared with only 33% of their older fellow sufferers.
There will, of course, be many mitigating factors included in these figures such as general infirmity, the progression of the disease, other conditions suffered by the patient, or even the patients’ refusal of treatment.
But the discrepancy seems too large to be explained by these alone, especially when the President of the Royal College of Surgeons himself has indicated that, since modern techniques offer much quicker recovery time than in the past, it was possible some doctors were being over cautious.
The cases examined were from 2006 to 2010 and predate legislation in 2012 which makes it illegal for doctors to deny surgeries to patients on the sole grounds of age, but available evidence seems to suggest that the trend has continued, as with the Royal College’s recent warning about breast cancer patients over 75 being denied surgery in some regions.
Budgetary pressures may also be having their effect, and we can only speculate what impact the publication of ‘success’ rates among surgeons will have on how candidates for surgery are selected.
It may just be the case that doctors are now being pressured to find rationale not to operate rather than any compelling reasons for the surgery.
Surely the point must be that, at any age, a life is a life worth saving or at least prolonging if it is at all possible.
Other considerations should be insignificant measured against this principle.
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