Cancer And Aging

Thanks to improvements in health care, life expectancy is much longer now than it was 50 years ago.  Most people diagnosed with cancer and most cancer survivors are older than 65. Cancer also occurs at a high rate in people older than 75, but they are more likely to die from other medical conditions.

As you age your biological processes results in the deterioration of proteins and DNA in cells. These damaged cells enter a state of arrested growth (no longer dividing and growing) but remain active and capable of causing problems.  They can produce uncontrollable cell growth that causes the formation and spread of cancer. The body’s immune system as you age is less protective and resilient, and less efficient in detecting and fighting cancer.

breast cancer awareness on teal wooden surface

Cancer in Women

Cancers affecting women include breast, colorectal, endometrial, lung, cervical, and ovarian cancers. Finding them early or knowing what to do to help prevent them may save your life.

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women. As you age, the risk goes up but there are ways to lower the risk. Finding breast cancer early by getting regular screening tests is the most reliable way to find breast cancer early.

Women 55 and older should get a mammogram every 2 years, or yearly screening if desired. Become familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel and report changes to your doctor immediately.

Endometrial Cancer

Endometrial cancer is a cancer of the inner lining of the uterus. The risk increases as you get older. Taking hormones like estrogen without progesterone and taking tamoxifen for breast cancer treatment or to lower breast cancer risk can increase your chances of getting this cancer. Having early onset menstrual periods, late menopause, a history of infertility, or not having children can also increase the risk. If you have a personal or family history of hereditary colorectal cancer or polycystic ovary syndrome , are overweight, you also have a higher risk for getting endometrial cancer. If you have had breast cancer or ovarian cancer, it may also increase the risk.

There are no screening tests to detect endometrial cancer early in women who have no symptoms. At menopause, all women should report any unusual discharge, spotting, or vaginal bleeding to your doctor. A pap test is very good at finding cancer of the cervix and can sometimes find some early endometrial cancers, but it’s not a test for endometrial cancer.

Cervical Cancer

The greatest risk factor for acquiring cervical cancer is if you have chronic infection of certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV). You can be infected with HPV through having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus. Other risk factors include smoking, a weakened immune system, have had a chlamydia infection, overweight, being exposed to or taking certain hormone treatments, and not having regular cervical cancer screening tests.

To help avoid getting cervical cancer, avoid smoking and protect yourself from HPV by using condoms. The HPV vaccines can protect against certain HPV infections linked to cancer.

If you are under 65 get a primary HPV test every 5 years. If unavailable, get a co-test (an HPV test with a Pap test) every 5 years or a Pap test every 3 years. If you are over 65 and have had regular cervical cancer testing in the past 10 years with normal results, you do not need to be tested for cervical cancer. If you have had cervical precancer, continue to be tested for at least 25 years after that diagnosis, even if testing goes past age 65.

Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer is more likely to occur as you get older. You are at increased risk if you have never had children or had your first child over age 35. If you used estrogen alone as a hormone replacement, this is also a risk factor. If you have a personal or family history of colorectal cancer, ovarian cancer, or breast cancer you would also have a higher risk of ovarian cancer.

There are no cancer screening tests to detect ovarian cancer. There are tests that can be used if you have symptoms or have a high risk of ovarian cancer. See your physician right away if you have any of these symptoms for more than a few weeks:

  • Abdominal swelling with weight loss
  • Digestive problems (including gas, loss of appetite, and bloating)
  • Abdominal or pelvic pain
  • Feeling like you need to urinate all the time

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Cancer In Men

Prostate Cancer

While prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men, it is difficult to prevent it. Screening tests are available to detect abnormalities which should be done at least once a year. Men over 40 should take screening tests at least once a year. If you have urination issues, get checked immediately. Warning signs include frequent urination, weak or interrupted urine flow, discomfort while urinating or blood in the urine.

Penile Cancer

Penis or penile cancer is considered rare. It initially develops within the skin cells of the penis and works its way inward. It is not known what causes this type of cancer although it seems to be more prevalent in men who are not circumcised as the body fluids can get trapped within the foreskin. It has also been linked to certain treatments for psoriasis.

If you experience changes in the skin appearance or thickness, visit with your physician. The foreskin and tip of the penis will be most likely affected. If symptoms are limited to the scrotum or testicles, this is known as testicular cancer. Testicular cancer is most common in men between the ages of 15 and 35. Other symptoms can include crusty bumps or visible bumps, an ulcer that bleeds, odorous discharge under the foreskin or growths that appear flat and/or blue or brown in colour.

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Other Aging Cancers

Colorectal cancer

Colin cancer cases occurs in more than half of people who are at least 67 years old. It is highly preventable and 63% of people who get colon cancer live 5 or more years after their diagnosis. A colonoscopy can find pre-cancerous growths called polyps which can be removed during testing.

Factors that increase your risk of getting colorectal cancer include being overweight, physical inactivity, a diet high in red and processed meats, smoking, heavy alcohol use, being older, and a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps.

Both men and women should start regular screening at age 45. Continue regular screening through age 75. People between 76 and 85 can get tested based on your life expectancy, overall health and prior screen history. If you are over 85, you should not get colorectal cancer screening.

Lung Cancer

More than half of the people diagnosed with lung cancer are over 70 years old. Although there have been advances in treating lung cancer, it is still one of the deadliest cancers. The 5-year survival rate is only 21%. There are medicines called targeted therapies that specifically target cancerous cells. 

Lower your risk by not smoking and avoiding second hand smoke. If you currently smoke or did smoke for more than 30 years before quitting and are between 50 and 80, you can get tested with a low-dose CT scan.

If you’ve had radiation therapy to the chest for another type of cancer, you may have an increased risk. Another risk factor is if you’ve been exposed to radon (in any building) which is produced by the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water.  Workplace exposure to asbestos, arsenic, chromium and nickel can increase your risk of developing lung cancer, especially if you’re a smoker. A family history of lung cancer with a parent, sibling or child with lung cancer can also increase your risk of the disease.

Signs and symptoms of lung cancer typically occur when the disease is advanced. They can include:

  • A new cough that doesn’t go away
  • Coughing up blood, even a small amount
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Hoarseness
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Bone pain
  • Headache

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