Beating Breast Cancer: several reasons to celebrate

Sometimes in life it’s really important to take a step back and make sure we appreciate the good news stories as well as highlight where things have gone wrong. With that in mind, reports this week of a 100-year-old woman successfully beating breast cancer after undergoing surgery is definitely something to celebrate.

The cause for celebration is not just that Mrs Affleck is recovering well after her operation (a wonderful outcome and we wish her very well indeed) it’s that her medical team seem to have done everything right. This might seem a very obvious and somewhat patronising statement on the face of it. What else would we expect from a professional medical team? But equally, given what we know about age discrimination in treatment and care, I think it does warrant a moment to reflect. Not every story has such a happy outcome.

Stories of age discrimination in health care are unfortunately all too common. Cancer care in particular has come in for serious criticism in the past few years. As data sets have improved, meaning we know more and more about people diagnosed and treated for cancer, it has become increasingly apparent that older people are losing out.

Recent evidence suggests that cancers are more likely to be diagnosed late and patients are less likely to be offered a full range of treatment. Admittedly more work is needed to fully understand why this happens, but age appears to be the overriding factor.

Clinicians are making assumptions about medical health based on preconceptions about age rather than actual health status. Indeed in her statement Mrs Affleck points out that she was left frightened by the prospect of a painful death as she’d been told no one would operate on someone her age.

Luckily in this case her surgeon decided to take another view, assessing her as being in good enough health and, even more importantly, taking into account Mrs Affleck’s own views about what was right for her.

There are all sorts of things to take into account when deciding on the right course of treatment, including someone’s general health and fitness, the impact it might have on other conditions and medications and people’s own preferences and choices. However the number of candles on the person’s last birthday cake is not one of them.

Full statements by Mrs Affleck and her surgeon are available on the BBC website: