Third of cancer pensioners are diagnosed in Accident and Emergency

The National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN) found 65 per cent of the 58,400 cases identified in England through emergency admission every year were in the over 70 age group.Third of cancer pensioners are diagnosed in Accident and EmergencyOverall the report Routes to diagnosis found that nearly 1 in 3 cancers in the elderly are only diagnosed as emergency admissions in hospitals.

Campaigners said this was down to GPs failing to identify cancer in elderly people and elderly people themselves being reluctant to bother their doctors or not wanting to confront the “taboo” disease.

People who have cancer diagnosed in an emergency usually survive a shorter time than average, because the disease has often spread.

By comparison, those picked up through screening programmes or via a routine GP referral to check out possible symptoms are usually diagnosed at an earlier stage.

Some people will have been admitted to hospital for an unrelated reason, such as a broken hip. The cancer would then have been picked up by doctors, for example as a result of a scan.

Others will have been given an emergency referral by a GP, after the patient presented with cancer symptoms that required immediate hospital treatment.

Sara Hiom, director of information at Cancer Research UK, said the “stark figures” were worrying and “urgently needed” to be understood.

She said: “It may be that older people are reluctant to bother their doctor with possible cancer symptoms, or they could be slipping through the net as symptoms may be dismissed as ‘the usual aches and pains’ or ‘old age’.”

She added: “With so many people past retirement now able to lead healthy, active lives we need to continue to work with GPs and older people to raise awareness of early detection and treatment of cancer in the over 70s – a generation where traditionally cancer was a taboo word.”

Professor Jane Maher, chief medical officer of Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “It is appalling that so many cancer patients are still diagnosed through emergency admissions, with 65 per cent of them over 70.

“This route to diagnosis can have a disastrous impact on survival chances.  It can be more difficult to spot cancer symptoms in older people who have other health conditions but this does not excuse such a high number of people being diagnosed in this way.”

In the population as a whole, some one in four cases of cancer (24 per cent) are identified via emergency admission, according to the research, published in the British Journal of Cancer. However, among the over 70s – who account for a great number of cancer cases overall – that rises in almost one in three (31 per cent).

Professor Sir Mike Richards, the cancer ‘tsar’, has told ministers the best way to improve cancer survival rates is to diagnose it sooner. Consequently ministers are spending millions on the Be Clear on Cancer advertising campaign and better diagnostic tests.

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