What is Cancer?
Cancer in the elderly is the growth of abnormal cells within a part of the body. These abnormal cells can turn into a mass, which is also referred to as a tumor. Cancer cells can begin in any part of the body and then grow into other parts. As it takes up a large amount of space within the body, it restricts the growth of healthy cells and prevents the body from working as it is designed to do.
There are hundreds of different types of cancer, with each one describing the location in which it begins. There are also different types of cancer cells, each of which describes the type of cell and the method in which it grows. An individual’s treatment plan, quality of life, expected cancer care, and survival rates can all be affected by the type of cancer.
What are the Causes of Cancer?
Unfortunately, doctors do not entirely know what causes cancer, but there are a few things that research estimates that increases the chances of being diagnosed with cancer. Age is one of the most common causes of a significant increase in cancer diagnoses after the age of 75. As people today live longer, we can expect to notice an increase in the most common cancers.
That is due to the fact that as we age, our cell growth decreases. While this can lead to a slower progression of the disease, it can also result in a greater occurrence of cancer among elderly patients.
Being diagnosed with cancer is not reserved for older adults. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, about one-third of all people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer at one time. But, also according to the American Cancer Society, about nine out of 10 cancers diagnosed are in older adults, ages 50 years or over.
Looking at the genetics of DNA, cancer is caused when a large group of abnormal cancer cells destroys normal cells. This can come from a gene mutation, either genetically or environmentally. That means that cancer can come from your DNA or radiation, a virus, chemicals, or smoking.
What are the Symptoms of Cancer?
Knowing the symptoms of cancer can help you receive medical care and testing when needed. While the symptoms of cancer will vary, depending on the type of cancer and its progression, these are a few of the most common symptoms:
- General fatigue
- Physical lump underneath the skin
- Rapid weight increase or loss
- Changes in bowel habits
- Difficulty swallowing
- Unexplained bleeding
- Injuries or bruises that do not heal
- Difficulty breathing
It is not always easy to identify the symptoms of cancer. That is why it is so important to maintain routine medical checkups with your medical provider, especially as you reach a higher age group. During your annual geriatric assessment, your doctor will look at your general health and consider all medical conditions, including cancer.
How is Cancer Treated?
The treatment of cancer depends on many factors, including the type of cancer and how aggressive it is. The medical team will also consider the general health of the patient and how well they will tolerate certain treatments.
When considering treatment options, your doctor will take the following into consideration:
- Medical history: Older adults often have co-existing medical conditions. These medical conditions will need to be considered when evaluating certain cancer treatments like chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
- Independence: A senior’s ability to maintain an independent lifestyle following cancer treatment is important to consider. Some seniors do not have the resources or assistance needed to meet the demands of care.
- Current medications: Current medications can interact with certain cancer treatments or medications. Your medical doctor will consider which medications you are currently taking.
- Psychological wellbeing: Psychological wellbeing of geriatrics can affect treatment outcome. Your doctor will consider your quality of life and survival rates when considering treatment choices.
It is important to understand all of your treatment options. This will allow you to make an informed decision and to be involved in your treatment
A few treatment options might include:
- Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill off cancer cells or to slow down their growth. Chemotherapy can come in the form of an IV, or it can be taken orally in pill form.
- Surgery: If the cancer is localized to a certain location, it may be able to be surgically removed. Depending on the extent of cancer, the doctor may also need to remove parts of the body.
- Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy is the use of radiation to kill off or slow the growth of cancer cells.
- Clinical trials: Clinical trials are experimental types of treatment that are not yet proven. These clinical trials may involve surgery, medications, radiation, or a mix of the different treatment types.
Additionally, some older patients might choose palliative or hospice care, in which the goal is to reduce the symptoms and make the patient as comfortable as possible while maintaining a good quality of life.
Treatment options can also be affected by the senior’s health and any other medical concerns. For example, surgery might be more risky for seniors dealing with heart or lung conditions. It is important to consider many factors when determining the right treatment for your cancer type.
When to See a Doctor for Cancer
Cancer is a serious medical condition that should always be monitored by a doctor. If you believe that you might have cancer, it is important to consult with your doctor as soon as possible.
Keeping up with geriatric assessments annually is also an important step in preventing cancer in older patients. Doctors who complete geriatric assessments can look into concerning symptoms earlier and provide patients with the cancer care they need earlier in their treatment.
If your doctor suspects that you have cancer, they will order certain tests. The following are used to come to a cancer diagnosis in older patients:
- A physical health exam: A physical health exam is the first step toward understanding the symptoms of cancer. This might include a physical exam of parts of the body with lumps.
- Lab test: Your doctor might order blood tests to learn more about your symptoms. These tests, including urine and blood, can help the doctor identify any problematic results that could indicate cancer.
- Imaging: Imaging tests like MRIs and CT scans allow the doctor to get a closer image of your bodies’ cells and tissues. Depending on the part of your body where your symptoms are, your doctor might order imaging of your breast, prostate, colon, or any other part of your body.
- Biopsy: A biopsy is the collection of the cells from a tumor or body growth. This allows the doctor to closely evaluate whether or not cancer cells are present in the tumor.
Following a cancer diagnosis, your doctor will likely refer you to an oncologist. Oncology is the specialized treatment of cancer. It is also possible for them to refer you to a geriatrician, which is a doctor that specializes in the care of seniors.
When diagnosing, your doctor will also look at the stage of cancer and the type of cancer cells. This will assist them in determining what treatment options are available.
Medications for Cancer
There are medications that can be used to minimize the symptoms of cancer or to slow down the progression of it. Also, medications may be used to help treat symptoms due to cancer treatments, like chemotherapy or radiation.
Available medications might include:
- Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is available in medication form.
- Hormone therapies: Hormone therapy medication encourages the body to adjust its hormones in an attempt to stop or slow cancer cells. Hormone therapy is most commonly used in the treatment of breast cancer.
- Targeted drugs: Targeted drugs will target specific genes or proteins within the body that are known to increase cell growth.
- Bisphosphonates: Bisphosphonates medications are used to prevent and slow down the growth of osteoporosis. This is useful when treating certain common cancers like bone cancer.
Seniors will need to take great care to monitor medication use and to ensure that any medications that they are taking for other medical conditions do not interact.
Cancer Risk Factors
One of the greatest risk factors for cancer is age. There are other factors that can also increase risk, including:
- Smoking: The action of smoking can prevent your body from fighting cancerous cells. Smoking is most common in the diagnosis of lung cancer, but it can also increase the risk of other common cancers.
- Alcohol use: Frequent alcohol use can also increase your chances of developing cancer by getting into the bloodstream and damaging the bodies’ tissues.
- Obesity: Obesity can also increase the chances of developing cancer. An increase in body fat within the body can increase the occurrence of breast, pancreatic, and uterine cancer.
- Poor dietary habits: Poor dietary habits will often lead to a greater occurrence of obesity, which can also lead to certain cancer types.
- General health: Seniors with multiple chronic health conditions also tend to be at an increased risk of developing cancer.
While cancer cannot always be prevented, routine medical checkups are crucial in identifying the symptoms early enough for treatment. Unfortunately, seniors do not always take the proactive steps they need to prevent age-related diseases, like cancer. Additionally, maintaining a healthy lifestyle with minimal alcohol consumption, not smoking, exercising frequently, and eating healthily are all important steps in the prevention of cancer, especially in the elderly.
Special Concerns for Elderly Patient
Elderly patients are more at risk of cancer. This can present difficult challenges that younger patients might not necessarily experience. The treatment of most types of cancer requires routine medical visits and procedures. Some seniors may be limited as to transportation to and from appointments or may have co-occurring diseases that make the available treatment options more challenging.
Additionally, normal side effects can be exacerbated in seniors. While surgery may be an option for younger cancer patients, the recovery can be more difficult for seniors. Chemotherapy therapy can make seniors feel weak, which can make them more prone to falls. However, this does not necessarily mean that an elderly patient cannot receive chemotherapy or undergo surgery. Age is not the only factor to consider.
Instead, it is important to work closely with your oncology team to carefully evaluate treatment options. Evaluating cancer in seniors requires a look at the seniors’ overall health, rather than only on their cancer. Some seniors might also find that they are not given as in-depth information and resources regarding treatment options. Seniors may need to consult with multiple oncology doctors in order to get a second medical opinion or to better understand their treatment options.
It is also important to consider the psychological piece when dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Many seniors will develop depression, which can make cancer treatment more difficult. Seniors who receive an advanced cancer diagnosis may need to be encouraged or educated on their treatment options.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
Understanding your condition and treatment options is an important part of dealing with cancer.
Consider asking your doctor these questions:
- What kind of cancer do I have and what are the symptoms?
- Will more tests be needed?
- How progressive is cancer?
- Is cancer curable?
- What treatment options are available?
- What treatment do you recommend, and why?
- What side effects can I expect during treatment?
- What can I expect the costs to be for treatment?
It is important to understand your diagnosis and options. The treatment of breast cancer, for example, differs from that of colon cancer. Your doctor might not initially have all of the answers that you need. However, by working closely with your medical team, you can better understand choices.
Managing cancer is necessary as you deal with the symptoms and side effects of treatment. You can effectively manage your treatment in the following ways:
- Keep up with medical appointments: Keeping up with your medical appointments will not only increase your chances of survival but will ensure that you are always informed about your treatment options.
- Do your research: Doing your own research can help you better understand your diagnosis. It can also help you identify any clinical trials that could be available to you.
- Make it a goal to be healthier: Just because you are dealing with the symptoms of cancer does not mean that it is too late to be healthier. Eating a healthy meal, getting enough sleep, keeping up with appointments, and taking care of yourself will help you better deal with the side effects of cancer treatment.
- Understand your risk: Understanding your risks and the most common side effects can help you better prepare for them. Discuss your concerns with your doctor and make a plan ahead of time.
You can effectively manage cancer by being proactive about your treatment options.
How Do You Live With Cancer?
Living with cancer is possible. Even with cancer, that’s not curable; seniors can live a long life while coping with the symptoms. With medications and treatment options, you can slow down the progression of cancerous cells while minimizing the symptoms that you experience.
How to Help Your Loved One Post Cancer
While you cannot take away your loved one’s cancer diagnosis, you can help them as they cope with it. You can help them by driving them to and from medical appointments and procedures. Cancer can also be tiring, so helping with daily activities like cooking, cleaning, errands, and transportation can be useful.
Healthy eating is important throughout the treatment of cancer. You can also help your loved one by assisting them with grocery shopping and cooking well-balanced meals. Help your loved one’s psychological coping by encouraging attendance to support groups. Being surrounded by others who are going through similar symptoms and treatments can be beneficial when dealing with cancer.
It is important to understand your insurance coverage when considering your treatment options. Many seniors rely on Medicare to cover medical conditions, and depending on the type of Medicare, certain treatments or medications may not be covered.
Seniors who have mandatory co-pays or who must meet minimum deductibles before using insurance may find it expensive to cover cancer treatment.
For More Information Contact
For more information about cancer and your treatment options, you can visit:
More Information to Know About Cancer
It can be useful to better understand the most common cancers found in the elderly.
Types of Cancer in the Elderly
- Prostate cancer: Prostate cancer is one of the most common types of cancer among elderly patients.
- Lung cancer: Smoking is the biggest risk factor in developing lung cancer.
- Breast cancer: Breast cancer is common in both men and women, of all ages. The occurrence of breast cancer increases with age until around 80 years.
- Colon cancer: Colon cancer is also common in the elderly, aged 70 years and older, affecting elderly patients of all physical types.
- Skin cancer: Skin cancer occurrences also increase with age with multiple types of cancer cells possible.
Whether you are dealing with lung, prostate, or breast cancer, learning of a cancer diagnosis can be difficult. Fortunately, while seniors do face additional challenges during treatment, age is not the only factor to consider when evaluating your options.