Director’s Oscar Win Shines Spotlight on Senior Adult Oncology

By Amanda Sangster - February 18, 2020

Last week, movie director Julia Reichert, 73, took the stage at the 92nd Academy Awards to accept the award for Best Documentary with her husband and co-director Steven Bognar. What caught the eye of viewers wasn’t an elaborate evening gown or celebrity fame, but that Reichert appeared on stage confidently donning a bald head. Having opted to not wear a wig that evening, Reichert’s bald head was a symbol of her ongoing battle with urothelial cancer, a form of bladder cancer.

We’re frequently hearing more and more in the media about notable people and their ongoing battles with cancer. Reichert, Alex Trebek and Olivia Newton-John, just to name a few. They represent a steadily growing population of Baby Boomers in need of cancer treatment. In fact, over half of all cancer patients in the United States are over the age of 70. But what does this mean for the average American senior that has limited resources, limited travel options and few providers willing to treat to them?

As people age, multiple factors play a larger role in cancer treatment. For patients 70 and older, their health concerns become more varied. Many factors must be assessed including nutritional restrictions, physical limitations, cognitive issues and other diseases associated with aging. All of these issues can cause oncologists to recommend more conservative, less aggressive treatments. However, Moffitt Cancer Center’s Senior Adult Oncology Program treats the whole person by looking at their overall health – not their age.

Dr. Martine Extermann, medical oncologist and program leader of the Senior Adult Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center

Led by Dr. Martine Extermann, Moffitt’s Senior Adult Oncology Program offers personalized medicine for every patient. Aging is the highest risk factor for getting cancer and Extermann says that geriatric oncology is the ultimate personalized cancer treatment. “A 70-, 80- or 90-year-old is diagnosed with cancer and many say they shouldn’t be treated aggressively. However, we see the whole patient, their cognitive abilities, their physical status, their goals in life. We use that to determine the best treatment possible,” says Extermann. “We do precision oncology on the patient, not only on the cancer.”

A leader in senior adult oncology, Moffitt offers one of the oldest, largest and most developed programs in the U.S. “When we first developed our program in 1993, we could see this epidemic coming. We live in Florida with the highest population of older people. We knew this was the right place to get started and make access to treatment available.”

Exceptional patient outcomes are the key focus of the Senior Adult Oncology Program. Moffitt continues to make advancements in areas that most affect geriatric patients like Reichert’s disease, bladder cancer, which has the highest average age of occurrence. Moffitt’s survival rates often exceed national averages leading to an overall increased quality of life. Reichert, who is not treated at Moffitt, told NPR that “I'm full of hope. There still are plenty of things to try […]. It gives me a sense of wanting to focus my life on what will bring me and the people around me the most joy.” Reichert is a shining example of what senior adult oncology patients can be, accomplishing great feats later in life and showing that a cancer diagnosis does not mean the end of life’s fulfillments.

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