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The major risk factor for most common solid tumours is increased age. By the year 2000, approximately half the population in Europe will be over 60 years of age and 70% of cancers will be diagnosed in this patient group. Because older patients were excluded from randomised clinical trials until recently, optimal treatments have not yet been tested in this population. Although screening for cancer in a high-risk group is logical, elderly patients are not offered routine mammographic screening in countries with national breast cancer screening programmes. Problems of compliance can be overcome, and detection of early disease may lead not only to humanitarian improvements, but to economic savings as well. The role of screening in other common cancers, such as prostate cancer, remains to be determined. There are many misconceptions about the role of surgery in older patients; these relate to the biology of cancer, life expectancy in older individuals, the safety of general anaesthesia, and the risks of major surgery. Generally, cancer is not less aggressive in older individuals. If they receive inadequate treatment, most patients will live long enough to have a relapse. They may then die prematurely from metastatic malignancy. Modern anaesthesia has reduced the risks of major surgery and operations performed by experienced surgeons are associated with low operative mortality and a high rate of tumour control. Recent controlled trials of elderly patients with operable breast cancer have demonstrated the importance of local cancer control and the increased relapse rate and mortality in patients receiving suboptimal surgical treatment.
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