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Coordinating practical support for cancer patients

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Cancer is mostly a disease of ageing with just under 200,000 of the 300,000 people diagnosed in the UK with cancer every year being over 65. Many will manage independently during their cancer treatment. Others will have rapidly changing needs. For the group as a whole, it is widely understood a lack of practical and social support is linked to poorer cancer outcomes.

In 2011 Macmillan Cancer Support launched an important pilot in partnership with the Department of Health and Age UK. One key aspect of the project involves coordinating practical support to meet the needs of older people during treatment. This could involve support with shopping, meal preparation for someone at risk of malnutrition, or access to a befriending service for someone experiencing distress.

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, speed is important

The pilot has delivered clear benefits for many patients in terms of their ability to tolerate treatment and also their quality of life. However, initial observations have highlighted significant variation between local authorities in terms of the types of services available and waiting times to access these services.

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, speed is important. This is reflected in strict cancer waiting time targets – for example, in England initial treatment must be started within 31 days of the decision to give it.  To be useful, our health and social care systems must put appropriate help in place for older patients within this time frame.

We’ve witnessed cases where older people with caring responsibilities have had their treatment postponed due to delays in arranging care for their spouse. We have seen where people die before the support they desperately needed was mobilised. You do not need me to say this in unacceptable.

If we are to improve cancer mortality rates in our older population, we must collaborate across health and social care. Our older citizens need the right support, when they need it, in order to get the maximum benefit from their cancer treatment and to recover well.

The Improving Cancer Treatment, Assessment and Support for Older People Project is being undertaken in 14 NHS Trusts throughout England. The final report will be available in December 2012. For more information visit

Ciarán Devane, chief executive, Macmillan Cancer Support


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