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Diagnosing and Treating Breast Cancer in Elderly Women: A Call for Improved Understanding

(See editorial comments by Drs. Miriam Rodin and Supriya Mohile on pp 1670–1671)


Address correspondence to Leona B. Downey, MD, 1515 N Campbell Ave, Tucson, AZ 85724. E-mail:


Breast cancer is the most common nondermatological malignancy in women, and the incidence increases with age until the eighth decade. Breast cancer pathology and biology appear to be different in elderly patients than in younger ones, and therefore treatment recommendations cannot be generalized from one group to the other. Most elderly women can tolerate breast cancer surgery without significant complications and should be offered a definitive surgical procedure. Improved mechanisms to predict which patients will tolerate and benefit from various therapies are under development. Because most breast cancers in the elderly are hormone responsive, hormonal therapy remains the mainstay of systemic treatment in the adjuvant and metastatic settings. Chemotherapy can be used in elderly women, but treatment decisions must be individualized based upon risk–benefit analyses. Elder-specific studies are underway to identify the most-efficacious and best-tolerated therapies for breast cancer in this population. Primary care physicians must be aware of these issues to provide adequate counseling and care to these patients.