Aging people with cancer often face a distinct set of challenges, regardless of where they live in the world, including inconsistent treatment and prevention guidance, additional health problems that require individualized care, and a lack of access to customized information, resources and post-treatment support. In this Q&A, the Chief Medical Officer and Global Head of Development at Sanofi, Dietmar Berger, describes how the company is addressing the challenges of cancer and aging with the aim of making a meaningful impact on the lives of patients and their families throughout their journey — even as a global pandemic changes the landscape of healthcare.
To explore the obstacles faced by aging people with cancer, Sanofi launched When Cancer Grows OldTM (WCGO) on World Cancer Day. This initiative facilitates dialogue within the global cancer community to seek new solutions and support ongoing efforts to create lasting, systemic change across the continuum of care so that aging patients with cancer have the best possible chance to grow old.
Why is cancer in aging populations a matter of global concern?
Dietmar Berger: The world’s population is aging more quickly than ever before1 and by 2050, the number of people over age 60 is expected to double.2
Getting older naturally increases one’s chances of developing cancer, and this increased risk becomes significant by middle age across many types of cancer.3 The number of new cancer cases in people over age 70 is predicted to more than double by 2040.4 In many cases, elderly cancer patients present with unique challenges, based on their individual social and economic situation, healthcare disparities, and comorbidities. Unless we work together now to address key gaps across the care continuum, this trend has the potential to place an overwhelming burden on individuals, families, communities and healthcare systems worldwide.
When Sanofi launched WCGO, we commissioned The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) to examine what cancer and aging look like in different countries and regions. Aging people continue to contribute, innovate and serve our global and local communities, care for others, and maintain active lifestyles well into their older years. It is important to ensure that older populations have access not only to innovations in oncology, but to the care and support they need and deserve.
What health challenges are specific to older people with cancer? How have you identified which needs are not being met?
Berger: Older people with cancer can experience age bias when it comes to treatment, screening, and follow-up care. Too often, they receive inconsistent cancer treatment and prevention guidance — a problem compounded by additional health problems that come with age and demand individualized attention. They have a variety of complex health needs that require the support of integrated, multidisciplinary teams. These patients also need more substantial support services to help them navigate the medical and mental health challenges they face throughout their care journey, including psychosocial support post-treatment.
At Sanofi, we are not alone in confronting these issues. Through WCGO, we began by holding discussions with the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), as well as other key partners, stakeholders, advocates, patients, and providers worldwide. These conversations — further validated through our research with the EIU — confirmed that older people with cancer are in need of more focused support in four key areas: the patient journey, clinical research and evidence, public health policy, and patient-centric education.
The insights we’ve gained show that the patient journey is an essential area of focus, and where Sanofi can make a meaningful impact. We also know that stronger data are needed to support clinical decision-making, including greater representation of older patients in clinical studies and advanced geriatric understanding among practicing oncologists.
When Cancer Grows Old was launched before the COVID-19 pandemic created an entirely new burden for global health systems. How has the pandemic affected your approach to this initiative?
Berger: The pandemic has unveiled longstanding health disparities and further expanded cracks in our health systems that leave aging communities and those with underlying conditions — including cancer — at risk. It has confirmed how significant the gaps and barriers along the care continuum are, how patients need more support, and how much is at stake if we do not rapidly advance solutions to support aging populations, as health systems are stretched beyond their limits.
Our work is centered at the intersection of cancer and aging within the context of a shifting global health and policy landscape brought on by this pandemic. We’re investing in science and working with members of the oncology community at the global, regional and local levels to ensure that existing programs and policies that address care for aging patients with cancer can and do adapt during this challenging time, and continue to evolve and improve into the future. Internally, we are forming a dedicated team with a focus on patient centricity and health value, to proactively address patients’ needs in our development programs, and to integrate insights on the patient journey and health benefits.
Berger: This summer, Sanofi launched a two-part discussion series with the UICC as part of its Special Focus Dialogues exploring implications of COVID-19 on the global oncology community.
In October, we are supporting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Hacking Medicine Grand Hack, a hackathon that will bring together some of the best minds from around the world to foster innovative solutions that could bring us one step closer to meaningfully help people with cancer have a chance to live longer, fuller lives.
The work we’re doing has a very personal dimension, and I am grateful that cancer patients and their families chose to share their experiences with us. To learn more about the initiative you can visit When Cancer Grows Old.
1 United Nations Department of Economic Affairs, Population Division (2020) World Population Ageing 2019. Report ST/ESA/SER.A/444 online here.
2 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2017). World Population Ageing 2017 – Highlights (ST/ESA/SER.A/397).
3 White MC, Holman DM, Boehm JE, Peipins LA, Grossman M, Henley SJ. Age and cancer risk: a potentially modifiable relationship. Am J Prev Med. 2014;46(3 Suppl 1):S7-S15. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2013.10.029.
4 Globocan. Global Cancer Observatory Cancer Tomorrow. World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer Website. 2018. Accessed on 26 Nov, 2019.