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09 Feb 2021
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Better outcomes for patients, regardless of age

  • Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre
  • University of Melbourne
  • Royal Melbourne Hospital
  • Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre

The risk of getting a cancer diagnosis increases with age. The number of older people with cancer is rising steeply. In part, this is because we are living longer, but it's also because cancer rates are increasing and treatments are improving so more patients are surviving for longer, or overcoming cancer entirely.

We all experience changes to our bodies with age and many older people have existing health conditions. They perhaps aren’t as mobile as they used to be, and their support networks may be fewer – this may complicate cancer treatment and managing the demands of treatment for older people.

It is important for cancer health care professionals to understand the older person’s health status, their day-to-day function, social circumstances and wishes. In partnership, the older person and their families and carers, together with the cancer team can make the best care and treatment decisions to meet each older person’s needs and preferences.    

Free, online course launches this month

This month the VCCC launches a new, four-week, part-time massive open online course (MOOC), Cancer and the Older Person for cancer health care professionals, as well as family members and carers of older people with a cancer diagnosis.

The course has been developed collaboratively and draws on the world-leading knowledge of specialists from the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre alliance including the University of Melbourne, the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and Sir Peter MacCallum Department of Oncology.

Course steering group consumer representative, Paul Baden says, “Having a different perspective about the needs, priorities, the importance of conversation and communication with older people has kept the development of this course real and focussed on the patients. It is not the treatment that is important but the patient and their quality of life, and how this determines the treatment itself.”

"It is not the treatment that is important but the patient and their quality of life, and how this determines the treatment itself.”

Led by professionals from the University of Melbourne, participants will learn communication methods and modes of questioning that will help them to respectfully encourage others to heed and adhere to expert health advice.

Director of Medical Student Education at St Vincent’s Clinical School, Associate Professor Justin Tse says, “As we have an increasing population of older persons, clinicians should be skilled in being aware of late effects of patients with past cancers and to be on the lookout for new cancers. Just because a patient is an older person should not stop them from getting the latest evidence-based care.”

"Just because a patient is an older person should not stop them from getting the latest evidence-based care.”

Unique challenges for rural and regional populations

Cancer Services Improvement Coordinator at Grampians Integrated Cancer Service, Lea Marshall, says, “Rural and regional people have statistically lower cancer survival rates and higher levels of advanced disease at presentation than those in metropolitan areas. In many cases, these geographical areas also have ageing populations, and experience isolation and social disadvantage. Access to cancer diagnostic and treatment centres frequently involves long-distance travel and accommodation. This can be challenging.

“In response, many rural and regional areas are improving their capacity to improve care closer to home through outreach oncology services, establishing regional cancer centres, expanding the use of telehealth and technology, upskilling local health professionals in supportive cancer care, and collaborating with NGOs and community-based services.”

Learning and development offers accessibility and flexibility

The Cancer and the Older Person MOOC offers accessibility and flexibility for all busy health professionals regardless of where they live. Participants can discuss ideas, share resources and answer questions via the discussion board and therefore deepen their understanding. Older people often have unique needs. Appreciating their perspective should be front of mind for all participants.

Associate Professor Justin Tse agrees, “It really takes a village to help with the care of the older person with cancer. Ranging from primary care to the specialist oncology team to the pharmacist, psychologist, and physiotherapist, the care in 2021 of older persons with cancer should draw from the collective expertise of the treating team. Care should be centred around the patient rather than the cancer diagnosis itself.

The Cancer and the Older Person massive open online course (MOOC) is an accredited training program led by international experts in the field of geriatrics and oncology. It is designed to provide specific skills in assessment, care pathways and therapeutic choices about the elderly patients with cancer in order to provide the basis of the assessment and the multi-dimensional approach that should be applied to elderly cancer patients.

Places are still available for this month’s course. Continuing professional development (CPD) points will be available through the relevant colleges. 

For more information, contact Erin Turner, Education Program Coordinator, e: erin.turner@unimelb.edu.au

The Cancer and the Older Person program is proudly supported by the Victorian Government.