Half of people newly diagnosed with cancer in the UK are over 70, so it is likely that community and practice nurses will come into contact with an older person living with the disease. So what is it like for people over 70 who have been diagnosed with cancer?
The stark reality is that cancer mortality rates in our older population are not improving as rapidly as in the younger people and there are around 14,000 cancer patients over 75 dying prematurely each year in the UK.
Under-treatment is one of a number of factors contributing to unacceptably poor cancer survival rates. Older people are less likely to receive cancer treatments such as surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy than younger people.
Often, this is medically justifiable but there is growing evidence that many older patients who could benefit from treatment are not being offered it.
Two people of the same age may have very different needs and will cope with cancer treatments differently. Despite this, chronological age is an all too common factor influencing cancer treatment recommendations.
Many older cancer patients do not take up treatment because they have inadequate practical support to help them at home, with transport, or care for a dependent.
Nurses in primary care usually have more knowledge of an older cancer patient's pre-existing health conditions and social situation than specialist nurses in secondary care.
Improving levels of social support and optimising comorbid conditions can increase a patient's ability to tolerate the most effective treatment for their cancer. Community nurses can have a real impact on the quality of cancer care received.
Macmillan's new Age Old Excuse campaign will highlight issues people over 70 face during cancer treatment. We have set up five pilots in partnership with the DoH and Age UK to test new models of care. With the number of older people with cancer set to increase this is an issue that we can't afford to ignore. For more information, visit www.macmillan.org.uk/olderpeople
Hazel Brodie, older people's pilot project leader, Macmillan Cancer Support