Fighting age discrimination in cancer treatment

Age is the largest risk factor for getting cancer. In fact, 60% of cancer patients are over the age of 65. Seventy percent of all cancer deaths occur in people who are 65 plus.

For so many of these older patients, age is a main factor when considering treatment options. But one doctor is trying to change the protocol.

He wants to throw out the number and consider a person’s health instead. One size does not fit all when it comes to treating cancer patients.

“Any particular age is far less important than how you feel, how you’re doing, how you’re physically functioning, how you’re mentally functioning,” said Dr. William Dale, a geriatrician at Center for Cancer and Aging, City of Hope.

Doctors at the City of Hope are working to change how we treat aging cancer patients.

“A 60-year-old could be quite ill, and an 80-year-old could be quite healthy. So, you need some other way to decide from a health perspective how we’re going to treat people,” Dale said.

Dale’s team created a multi-dimensional assessment tool that looks at each patient’s physical and functional health.

“What can you do in your daily life? Can you go do the grocery shopping? Can you do the yard work? Can you do the things you need to do around the house,” Dale asked.

Also looking at nutrition, sleep and one of the most important things, mental health.

“So how is your thinking? Your social health?” Dale asked.

The assessment flags each patient’s vulnerabilities, and their treatment is focused on what they need. Results significantly reduced chemotherapy toxicity, helped control blood counts, nausea, sores and pain. They also learned that patients who suffered hearing loss were more at risk.

“You think, ‘Wow, that’s weird. Why would hearing impairment be affected?’ If you think about interacting, there’s a lot of instructions that you have to get when you go to the physician,” Dale said.

Dale is working to make this the standard of care for cancer patients nationally. He has written guidelines for the American Society for Clinical Oncology and encourages older cancer patients to go online at and print out the assessment for free and talk to their oncologists about it.