Cancer In Seniors Facts
Last Updated: April 28, 2013
Cancer strikes people of all ages, but you are more likely to
get cancer as you get older, even if no one in your family has had
it. The good news is that cancer death rates are going down. No
matter what your age, the chances of surviving cancer are better
today than ever before.
What Is Cancer?
There are many kinds of cancer but they all begin when cells in
a part of the body become abnormal and start making more cells.
These extra cells form a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.
If the tumor gets bigger, it can damage or destroy nearby tissues
and organs. Cancer cells also can break away and spread to other
parts of the body.
When cancer is found early, treatment is more likely to work.
Early treatment often can shrink or destroy the tumor and stop it
from growing and spreading. It may help to get regular checkups and
to know the symptoms of cancer.
What Symptoms Should I Watch For?
Cancer can cause many different symptoms. Here are some things
to watch for:
- A thickening or lump in the breast or any other part of the
- A new mole or a change in an existing mole
- A sore that does not heal
- Hoarseness or a cough that does not go away
- Changes in bowel or bladder habits
- Discomfort after eating
- A hard time swallowing
- Weight gain or loss with no known reason
- Unusual bleeding or discharge
- Feeling weak or very tired
Most often, these symptoms are not due to cancer. They may be
caused by non-cancerous (benign) tumors or other problems. However,
if you or your loved one are having any of these symptoms or other
changes in health, you should still see a doctor as soon as
In its early stages, cancer usually doesn't cause pain, so don't
wait to feel pain before seeing a doctor.
What Regular Tests Should I Have?
It is important to have regular tests to check for cancer long
before you might notice anything wrong. Checking for cancer when
you don't have symptoms is called screening. Screening may involve
a physical exam, lab tests, or tests to look at internal
Medicare now covers a number of screening tests for cancer. For
more information, call the Medicare toll-free help line at
Before recommending a screening test, your doctor will ask about
your (or your loved one's) age, past medical problems, family
medical problems, general health, and lifestyle. You may want to
talk about your concerns or questions with your doctor so that
together you can weigh the pros and cons of screening tests.
If you or your loved one are 50 or older, the following is a
list of some screening tests that check for some specific cancers:
- Clinical Breast Exam:During a clinical breast exam, a
doctor or other health care professional checks the breasts and
underarms for lumps or other changes that could be a sign of
breast cancer. Although primarily diagnosed in women, breast
cancer can happen to men as well.
- Mammogram:A special x-ray of the breast, a mammogram can often
find cancers too small for a woman or her doctor to feel. A woman's
risk of breast cancer goes up as she gets older. The National
Cancer Institute (NCI) says that women in their 40s or older should
have a screening mammogram every 1 to 2 years.
Cervical, Ovarian, and Other Related Cancers
- Pap Test: In this test, a doctor gently scrapes cells from the
cervix (the lower part of the uterus or womb) and vagina. The cells
are sent to a lab to see if they are abnormal. The NCI recommends
that all women have a Pap test at least once every 3 years.
However, if you are age 65 or older, talk with your doctor about
whether you still need to get Pap tests.
Cervical cancer is caused by a virus, called the human papilloma
virus (HPV), which can stay in the body for many years.
- Pelvic Exam:During a pelvic exam, the doctor checks the uterus,
vagina, ovaries, and rectum for any changes in shape or size. An
instrument called a speculum is used to widen the vagina so that
the upper part of the vagina and the cervix can be seen.
- Fecal Occult Blood Test:Stool samples are put on special cards
and sent to a lab. In the lab, they are looked at under a
microscope to see if there is occult (hidden) blood, which can be a
sign of cancer. Studies show that if you have a fecal occult blood
test every 1 or 2 years between the ages of 50 and 80, you can
lower your chance of dying from colorectal cancer. Most cases of
colorectal cancer are diagnosed in people over age 50.
- Sigmoidoscopy:The doctor uses a thin, flexible tube with a
light to look inside the lower part of the colon and rectum for
growths or abnormal areas. Studies show that sigmoidoscopy, done
once every 5 years, can save lives.
- Colonoscopy:Similar to a sigmoidoscopy, this test looks at the
whole colon. Some doctors recommend a colonoscopy every 10
Mouth and Throat Cancers
- Oral Exams:These are used by doctors and dentists to
detect cancer early by looking at the lips, tongue, mouth, and
throat to see if there are any abnormal changes.
- Digital Rectal Exam:The doctor puts a gloved finger into the
rectum and feels the prostate through the wall of the rectum. Any
hard or lumpy areas that the doctor may feel could be a sign of
cancer. Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in American
men-especially men over age 65. Researchers are working to find the
best screening test for prostate cancer.
- Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA):This measures the amount of PSA
in the blood. If the PSA level is higher than average, it may mean
that prostate cancer cells are present. However, PSA levels also
may be high in men who have other prostate problems. Researchers
are studying ways to make the PSA test more accurate.
- Skin Exams:These are routine exams of the skin that can help
find skin cancer early. Skin cancer is the most common form of
cancer in the United States.
If a screening test does show a growth or abnormal change, it
doesn't always mean that you have cancer. More tests may be needed.
A biopsy is the only sure way to know whether the problem is
cancer. In a biopsy, a small piece of tissue is taken from the
abnormal area and looked at under a microscope to check for cancer
cells. If tests show that cancer is present, you should talk with
your doctor and decide how to treat it as soon as possible.
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How Is Cancer Treated?
There are a number of cancer treatments. These include surgery,
radiation therapy, and chemotherapy (anticancer drugs). Recently,
doctors have also been using biological therapy for some cancers.
Some biological therapies help the body's own defenses kill cancer
cells, while others block the chain of events in and around cancer
cells so that they die or stop growing.
People with cancer often see different specialists, such as a
medical oncologist (specialist in cancer treatment), a surgeon, or
a radiation oncologist (specialist in radiation therapy). The
doctor may talk with you about using one type of treatment alone or
two or more treatments together. Your choice of treatment depends
on the type of cancer you or your loved one may have, where it is
in the body, and the stage it is at. You and your doctor will also
take into account overall health and any specific health problems
you or your loved one may have.
You may have heard that older people cannot have the same
treatments as younger people with cancer. But studies show that
treatments used in younger adults are often safe and work just as
well in older adults.
Before starting treatment, you may want another doctor to go
over the diagnosis and treatment plan and give you a second
opinion. Some insurance companies require a second opinion; others
may pay for a second opinion if you ask for one.
Some cancer patients take part in studies of new treatments.
These studies-called clinical trials-are meant to find out whether
new treatments are safe and whether they work or work better than
other treatments. If you or your loved one are a cancer patient and
are interested in taking part in a clinical trial, talk with their
doctor. You can find out about current clinical trials for cancer
from the NCI's Cancer Information Service (see below).
Can Cancer Be Prevented?
Although your chances of getting cancer go up as you get older,
there are things that you can do to prevent it. Experts think that
about two-thirds of all cancers may be linked to things we can
control, especially use of tobacco and what we eat and drink.
Having a lot of contact with some chemicals, metals, or pesticides
(weed killers and insect killers) can also make your risk of cancer
higher. You can lower your risk of cancer in several ways.
- Do not use tobacco products. Tobacco causes cancer. In fact,
smoking tobacco, using smokeless tobacco, and passive smoking
(often breathing other people's tobacco smoke) cause a third of all
cancer deaths in the United States each year.
- Avoid sunburns. Too much ultraviolet radiation from the sun and
from other sources-such as sunlamps and tanning booths-damages your
skin and can cause skin cancer.
- Eat right. Have at least five servings of fruits and vegetables
each day. Also cut down on fatty foods and eat plenty of fiber.
Researchers think that about a third of all cancers are linked to
what we eat and drink. People who have high-fat diets are more
likely to have cancer of the breast, colon, uterus, and
- Keep your weight down. People who are very overweight are more
likely to get cancers of the prostate, pancreas, uterus, colon, and
ovary. Older women who are overweight are more likely to develop
- Stay active. Studies show that exercise can help lower your
chance of getting breast and colon cancer and perhaps
other cancers too.
- If you drink alcohol, don't have more than one or two drinks a
day. Drinking large amounts of alcohol raises the risk of cancers
of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and larynx. People who smoke
cigarettes and drink alcohol have an especially high risk of
getting these cancers.
- Follow work and safety rules to avoid dangerous contact with
materials that cause cancer.
For More Information
The Cancer Information Service (CIS), a program of the National
Cancer Institute, can provide accurate, up-to-date information
about cancer. Information specialists can answer your questions in
English, Spanish, and on TTY equipment. The number is easy to
remember: 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) or 1-800-332-8615 (TTY).
You can get answers to your questions online through the CIS
instant messaging service on NCI's website at www.cancer.gov. Click on "Need
Help?" Then click on "LiveHelp."
Source: National Institute on Aging, www.nia.nih.gov (Original
title:Cancer Facts for Seniors)