Cancer Facts for Senior Citizens

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Published: 27th October 2009
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The chances of developing cancer increase as you age, so senior citizens are at especially high risk for developing the disease. Fortunately, the number of deaths due to cancer have been declining; survival rates for people with cancer are higher than ever.

Although many types of cancer exist, they all share a similar formation: cancer begins when certain cells become abnormal and replicate, causing a mass of tissue referred to as a "growth tumor." Growth of such a tumor can harm nearby organs and tissues, and cancer cells may migrate to other parts of the body-in other words, they can metastasize.

Early diagnosis allows for more effective treatment, because of this it is important that senior citizens get regular checkups. Early treatment can shrink or get rid of a tumor while stopping growth and spreading. Early detection, including knowing the early symptoms of cancer, can make a significant difference in the effectiveness of treatment.


Since so many types of cancer exist, it has many different symptoms. Still, it is important that senior citizens and those who provide elder care be able to recognize symptoms. Some to take note of are the following:

* A lump or thickening in the body, commonly in the breast

* The formation of a new mole or a change to an already existing one

* A sore that never heals completely

* Feeling hoarse or having a persistent cough

* Changes in bowel movements or urination

* Discomfort after meals

* Difficulty swallowing

* Changes in weight without a clear reason

* Unusual bleeding or discharge

* Weakness or fatigue

These symptoms are not usually do to cancer itself; they may arise from non-cancerous (benign) tumors or other problems. You should see your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms or notice other changes in your personal health.

Cancer does not normally cause pain in its early stages, so do not wait for pain as an indication. If possible, seek help before that point, and make sure to get regular tests for early detection.


Because of the nature of cancer and its treatment, it is important to have regular tests to detect cancer long before you feel its effects. Being checked for cancer when you feel no symptoms is called "screening," which may include a physical exam, lab tests, or other tests to check internal organs.

Your doctor may ask questions about your age, past medical problems, family history of medical problems, general health, and lifestyle before suggesting a screening test. It is a good idea to talk to your doctor about pros and cons of, as well as questions and concerns about each test before you agree to take it.

The following is a list of tests that screen for specific cancers in people over 50:

Breast cancer

* Clinical breast exam: In this test, a doctor or health care professional will check the breasts and underarms for lumps or other changes indicative of cancer. This type of cancer is more common in women, but men can also develop breast cancer.

* Mammogram: This is a special X-ray of the breast that is useful in identifying cancers that are too small to feel. Aging increases the likelihood of developing breast cancer, so women over 40 are encouraged to have a screening mammogram every 1 to 2 years.

Cervical cancer

* Pap test: A doctor gently scrapes cells from the cervix and vagina to be tested in a lab and identified as normal or abnormal. Women should have this kind of test at least once every 3 years. The cause of cervical cancer is the human papilloma virus, HPV, which can remain in the body for years.

* Pelvic exam: The uterus, vagina, ovaries, and rectum are examined to track changes in shape and size. The doctor uses a speculum to widen the vagina to allow access to the cervix and upper part of the vagina.

Colorectal cancer

* Fecal occult blood test: Stool samples are sent to a lab to determine whether it contains occult (hidden) blood, which can indicate cancer. Most cases of this type of cancer occur in senior citizens, so having this test every 1 to 2 years after the age of 50 is a good way to lower your chance of complications from colorectal cancer.

* Sigmoidoscopy: A thin, flexible tube with a light is used to search the lower part of the colon and rectum for growths and abnormalities. This should be done once every 5 years.

* Colonoscopy: This is similar to a sigmoidoscopy, but it includes an examination of the entire colon and should be done once every 10 years.

Mouth and throat cancers

* Oral exams: Doctors and dentists use these to identify cancer early by examining the lips, tongue, mouth, and throat to note any abnormal changes. Make sure to have regular dentist appointments for early detection.

Prostate cancer

* Digital rectal exam: The doctor places a gloved finger into the rectum to feel the prostate through the rectal wall. Hard or lumpy areas may indicate cancer. This type of cancer is the most common type in American men, especially in senior citizens.

* Prostate specific antigen (PSA) test: This measures the amount of PSA in the blood. A high amount means that prostate cancer cells or other prostate problems are present.

Skin cancer

* Skin exams: These are routine skin exams that can lead to early detection of skin cancer-the most common type of cancer in America. A screening that indicates a change or growth does not necessarily mean that cancer is present; a diagnosis may require further testing. The only method of truly identifying skin cancer is a biopsy, which involves looking at a small piece of tissue from the abnormal area underneath a microscope to check for cancer cells. If tests confirm that the abnormalities contain cancer cells, you should talk to your doctor about treatment options as soon as possible.


Many treatment options are available for people with cancer, including surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Biological therapy is becoming more common for certain types of cancer. Some types of biological therapy help the body use its natural defenses to kill cancerous cells, while others block processes that allow cancer cells to live and grow.

People with cancer often see a number of specialists, including a medical oncologist, who specializes in cancer treatment; a surgeon; a radiation oncologist, who specializes in radiation therapy; and others. Doctors may suggest using one treatment alone or a combination of treatments, depending on what type of cancer you have, where it is in the body, and the stage to which it has progressed. Your overall health will be considered in order to find the best treatment plan for you.

Research suggests that treatments used in younger adults are often safe and just as effective in older adults, so senior citizens are generally given the same treatment options that are offered to younger adults.

Getting a second opinion-asking a doctor to go over the diagnosis and suggested treatment plan given to you by a different doctor-may be a good idea, and some insurance companies even require a second opinion before covering the costs of treatment.

New treatments are often available for testing. If you have cancer and would like to participate in clinical trials of new treatments, talk to your doctor.


Experts estimate that about two-thirds of cancers are caused by factors we can control, including the use of tobacco and what we eat and drink. Contact with dangerous substances like chemicals, metals, or pesticides can also increase your risk of developing cancer. Here are some ways to lower your risk of cancer:

* Refrain from using tobacco products. Tobacco-in cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and even from second-hand smoke-is known to cause cancer. Tobacco causes about a third of all deaths from cancer in the United States each year.

* Limit your exposure to sunlight. An excess of ultraviolet radiation from the sun, sunlamps, and tanning booths can lead to wrinkles, skin damage, and cancer.

* Maintain a healthy diet. Eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables every day, limit fatty foods, and get enough fiber in your daily diet.

* Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight contributes to your risk of developing certain types of cancer, including cancers of the prostate, pancreas, uterus, ovary, and breast.

* Get plenty of exercise. Remaining active can lower your risk of developing breast and colon cancers, as well as other types of cancer.

* Limit alcohol use to a maximum of one or two drinks per day. Consuming more than that increases your risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and larynx. People who drink alcohol excessively and use tobacco are at an especially high risk for these cancers.

* Know and heed work and safety rules to avoid dangerous materials that could lead to cancer.

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