Healthcare system needs to prepare for wave of seniors with cancer

CARP Expert Panel looks at ways to ensure Canadians – especially older Canadians who are most affected – get access to advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment

Canada is in the midst of a rising tide of cancer cases that, due to the aging of the population, won’t slow down any time soon.

CARP Chief Policy Officer Marissa Lennox, convened an expert panel in September, 2019, to discuss a vital question for CARP members:

“Is our health system ready to care for a growing senior population with cancer?”

Lennox set the stage with cold statistics from the Canadian Cancer Society: “one in every two Canadians will get cancer in their lifetime and one in four Canadians will die from it.” She went on to underscore cancer’s disproportionate impact on older Canadians, “since 90% of Canadians with cancer are aged 50 years and older.” “The challenge is getting bigger all the time due to an aging population that will mean a 40% increase in cancer incidence over the next decade.”

Panelists included oncologist and President of Lung Cancer Canada, Dr. Paul Wheatley-Price, geriatric oncologist Dr. Tina Hsu and lung cancer survivor Larry. All three underscored the good news of diagnostics and treatments that are catching cancers earlier and boosting hope for survival and improved quality of life.

Dr. Hsu, Larry, Marissa Lennox, Dr. Wheatley-Price

“There have been great advances in diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer, doubling the survival rate in the past five years. That’s more progress than we saw in the 30 years before that.” indicated Larry.

When asked by an audience participant about one recent innovation – cancer immunotherapy – Larry described it as medicine that “stimulates your own immune system so that it can kick in and realize that the cancer cells are foreign to your body and that they have to kill them.”

According to Dr. Wheatley-Price, when patients respond to these types of therapies, they can work for years, which you never used to see in cancers such as lung cancer, and with fewer side effects than chemotherapy.

However, in order for Canadians to benefit from these and other innovations, the health system needs to be prepared to invest in financial and human resources.

Lennox reviewed a recent CARP survey of almost 4,000 members which showed that Canadians have little confidence that the health system is prepared for the growing number of cancer cases. According to the survey, “more than 90% said their provincial healthcare system should make new investments to be better prepared to treat cancer and that increasing cancer screening and providing timely treatment should be the healthcare system’s top priority.”

Dr. Wheatley-Price suggested that “the federal government has a key role to play by increasing federal Canada Health Transfers to the provinces so they are equipped to deal with the growing needs of cancer patients.” In terms of how to better treat lung cancer, which is the most diagnosed and most lethal of cancers in Canada, he stressed the importance of increased screening and rapid adoption of new therapies, such as immunotherapy and targeted oral cancer drugs.

Dr. Hsu also highlighted the importance of providing care that is tailored to the needs of older Canadians. “We don’t do enough to inform clinicians about treating older people with cancer. Therapies aren’t usually tested in older people and we don’t know enough about their preferences and treatment goals. We need to know and do more for older patients.”

All three panelists urged Canadians to become more engaged and involved in federal and provincial elections and to educate politicians and government officials on the issue so that preparing our cancer systems becomes a political priority.

1. Canada Cancer Statistics, 2019:

2. Canadian Cancer Society, Media Release:

3. Zoomer Magazine, June 2019:

 This expert panel was produced with the support of an educational grant from Merck Canada.