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The BBC's Daniel Sandford
"A new Cancer Research Campaign study has shown older women benefit enormously from an operation"
 real 56k

Monday, 9 July, 2001, 12:40 GMT 13:40 UK
Elderly denied breast cancer surgery
Breast scan
Women aged over 70 are being denied operations for breast cancer
Women aged over 70 who have breast cancer are being denied the life-saving treatment available to younger women, says a charity.

The Cancer Research Campaign (CRC) said that while younger women routinely have surgery to remove their tumours, those who are older usually only get the drug tamoxifen.

Around 13,000 women over the age of 70 are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK and this figure is expected to get higher as the population ages.

The CRC said that doctors believe the older women are too frail to be operated on successfully.


It seems ridiculous that we should continue to deny older women the chance of a longer life, because of outdated misconceptions about their ability to withstand surgery

Professor Gordon McVie, of the CRC

Extra years

But new evidence from a CRC funded study - the "Golden Oldies Trial" - showed that women would enjoy an average of three extra years of life if they had surgery.

This would mean hundreds of lives being saved each year.

Now they are teaming up with Age Concern to call for an end to discrimination by ensuring older women have the option of surgery.

Kay Berley, who is 83, was diagnosed with breast cancer last year and had a successful operation to remove the tumour.

She said the older women should be given an equal chance to beat breast cancer.

"I think it is terrible to think there is something growing in you and if it is possible to get rid of it then one should."

Kay Berley
Kay Berley had surgery for breast cancer last year

Scientists from the University College London, Charing Cross and William Harvey Hospitals monitored 455 women aged 70 and above with operable breast cancer.

They then divided the women into two groups and gave one group just tamoxifen and the others surgery and tamoxifen.

Twelve years later they followed up the women and found that in the surgery group 66 out of the 225 women were still alive, compared to just 43 out of 230 in the other group.

They concluded that surgery can cut the risk of dying from breast cancer by between 10 to 15% and extended life expectancy by three years.

Call for equality

Team leader Professor Mike Baum said: "Part of the reason older women have been denied surgery is that we've underestimated their life expectancy and undervalued their lives.

"A healthy women of 70 can now expect another 14 years of life, and that's a period worth preserving if we can."

Dr June Crown, chairman of Age Concern, said: "Breast cancer is a horrific thing for any women to face regardless of her age.

"The prospect of having the fundamental choice of treatment taken away from you on the basis of your age is quite simply age discrimination - whatever the intentions might be.

tamoxifen tablets
Women over 70 usually only get given tamoxifen

"Age Concern have campaigned against upper age limits on any treatment. It's unacceptable practice and denies older patients the rights that their younger counterparts take for granted.

Professor Gordon McVie, director general of the CRC said; "This study should cause a sea-change in our attitude to the treatment of older women.

"While an operation won't suit everyone over the age of 70, it seems ridiculous that we should continue to deny older women the chance of a longer life, because of outdated misconceptions about their ability to withstand surgery."

Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive of Breakthrough Breast Cancer said: "We know that older women tend to underestimate their risk of getting breast cancer and are less demanding of the system. This makes it even more important that they are offered the full range of treatment options.

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