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Third of cancers in over-70s diagnosed in A&E

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A third of cancers in over-70s diagnosed in emergency admissions to hospital, research shows.

Hospitals diagnose 31% of cancers in people over the age of 70 when they come through emergency admissions, the National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN) discovered in new research published Friday in the British Journal of Cancer (BJC).

In England the number of people over 70 whose cancer is detected when they are admitted to hospital in an emergency is 38,300 a year. When looking at people of all ages, 24% of cancer diagnoses, or 58,400 cases a year, are made when people have emergency admissions to hospitals.

The new research followed the cases of 739,667 cancer patients in England between 2006 and 2008. Scientists focused on how these patients were diagnosed and the events leading up to that conclusion.

In people aged over 70, about 70% of cancers of the central nervous system, 55% of pancreatic and 52% of liver cancers were detected for the first time following their admission to hospital in an emergency.

The research revealed that patients who went to hospital in an emergency went with a range of symptoms: some went to A&E because their cancer symptoms were so severe, although the patients did not know their cause; others entered A&E with a serious injury such as a broken hip, and their cancer was detected; or others were referred by their GP because their cancer symptoms were so severe.

The research shows for all age groups there is a wide range between cancers, with a large proportion of emergencies for cancers of the central nervous system and brain at 62%; emergencies for pancreatic cancer at 50% and emergencies for lung cancer at 39%.

Sara Hiom, director of information at Cancer Research UK and one of the study authors, 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’, or their GP could have referred them but their condition has progressed so rapidly that they end up as an emergency in hospital.”

Jane Maher, chief medical officer at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “It is appalling that so many cancer patients are still diagnosed through emergency admission. 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,” Professor Maher added.

“All cancer patients should be given the best possible survival chance and we owe it to the older members of our society to ensure that this applies equally to them.” 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Sadly I have experience of this being the case. My father was in considerable pain for months and was fobbed off by his GP, telling him it was a flare up of his osteoarthritis. He was admitted to hospital via AE and after TWO weeks was diagnosed with a severe bone infection (delays in actually assessing what was causing pain, with MRI scans).
    After initial surgery and many weeks of antibiotics, my father deteriorated and passed away.
    At his post mortem it was found that he actually had cancer too, which was undiagnosed.
    I feel that because of his age, my father received poor care and was treated very shoddily, something which he actually said to me himself. His GP actually referred to him being in pain as "part of old age", and only referred him for an x ray on my insistance.
    This should just not happen, and should be seen as discriminatory treatment.

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