It makes sense that most of us mistakenly believe that it's younger women who are more likely to die from breast cancer than any other group: They're not screened as aggressively as women in later stages of life and, therefore, aren't diagnosed until their cancer is in a later stage, which lowers their rate for survival. But actually that thinking has it backwards.
According to a new study, it's older women who are more likely to die from breast cancer. Specifically, it showed that women over 75 years old were 63 percent more likely to die of the cancer than women younger than 65. And the reasons for this disparity are more than a little alarming.
Experts suspect that older women are more likely to die because of undertreatment -- not just lesser treatment, but poorer treatment, too. It's easy to think of a scenario where the first factor plays a role: Some elderly patients may be too sick or frail to be treated aggressively with radiation and chemotherapy. But just because a patient is over 75 doesn't mean they are too old for chemo; in fact, there are many healthy women in their 70s who could benefit greatly from the treatment. Are they not getting the care that they need?
The "poorer treatment" factor is also worrying. We know that age discrimination can be prevalent in health care: Doctors are sometimes more focused on older patients exiting their lives than extending them. It's upsetting to think that these ageist attitudes could be affecting how they present breast treatment options to their older patients.
At the end of the day, it's not about whether younger women or older women deserve better care for breast cancer: All women need the best care possible. But if there is a disparity in treatment options that put older women at risk, then obviously it must be corrected. They deserve long, meaningful lives just as much as everyone else.
Do you worry that older breast cancer patients aren't getting the care they need?
Image via Coastie Wife 2008/Flickr