Cancer Facts For People Over 50

Cancer Facts for People over 50Cancer affects both men and women of all ages. According to estimates by the American Cancer Society, approximately 1,660,290 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in 2013 and about 14 million people with a history of cancer (who either now have cancer or are in remission) are currently alive in the United States.

The term “cancer” is applied to a group of over 100 distinct diseases that cause certain cells in the body to multiply and grow uncontrollably, leading to the proliferation of abnormal cells (known as malignant cells) that penetrate tissue throughout the affected organ, system or area. Once the cancerous cells have invaded an area of the body, those cells begin to grow, often leading to the formation of tumors or cancerous growths.

Although anyone can be diagnosed with cancer, people who are over the age of 50 face an increased risk regardless of their family history, making it important for seniors to learn about this disease. Medical advances have led to dramatic improvements in prevention, early detection, treatment and survivability of most forms of cancer, meaning that in many cases, the cancer can either be completely eradicated or successfully controlled.

The 10 Most Common Types of Cancer

Breast, prostate and lung cancers are the most common forms of cancer in the United States; the National Cancer Institute estimates there will be over a quarter of a million new cases of each diagnosed in 2013, followed by colorectal cancers (about 140,0000), melanoma (76,690), bladder (72,570), non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (69,740), thyroid (60,220) kidney (59,560) and leukemia (48,610).

Cancer Risk Factors

Cancer can be caused by genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors; in many cases, researchers do not fully understand why some people develop the disease and others do not.
Currently, there are a number of known risk factors for cancer, including:

  • Age - The likelihood of developing cancer increases with age; approximately 2.15% of all adults over 65 will be newly-diagnosed with cancer each year compared to 0.2% of those under 65.
  • Exposure to carcinogenic substances - There are over 100 known cancer-causing agents found in man-made chemicals and natural environments. The World Health Organization maintains an updated list of both known and probable carcinogens here.
  • Tobacco Use - Smoking tobacco and using smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco) is the single most preventable risk factor for cancer; tobacco users face significantly elevated risks for developing a variety of cancers, including lung, mouth, kidney, bladder, stomach and pancreatic. Exposure to second-hand smoke also significantly increases the risk of cancer.
  • Exposure to UV Rays/Sunlight - Melanoma (skin cancer) is one of the most common forms of cancer; adults over the age of 65 have about a 40-50 percent chance of being diagnosed with some form of skin cancer during their lifetime.
  • Family History - Studies show that certain forms of cancer appear to have some link to an individual’s genes - having an immediate blood relative (such as a parent or sibling) with some cancers can increase the risk of developing the disease.
  • Alcohol Use - Chronic, excessive consumption of alcohol increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, liver, colon, breast and rectum, while researchers also believe alcohol use may be connected to pancreatic cancer.
  • Diet & Obesity - A diet that is high in saturated fats, sodium and refined sugars can increase the risk of cancer, as can a diet that is lacking in fiber; low-fiber diets have been linked to colon, stomach and rectal cancers. The American Cancer Society reports that of the over 570,000 cancer-related deaths in the United States each year, over one-third are linked to unhealthy diets and obesity
  • Lifestyle - An inactive lifestyle can raise the risk of cancer. As with diet and obesity, a lack of physical activity is another co-morbid factor in the development of various cancers.

Signs and Symptoms of Cancer

Depending of the stage, type and location of the cancer, people with the disease may or may not notice one or more of the following signs and symptoms:

  • A lump or thick area in soft, fatty tissue (such as the breast) that either remains the same size or grows larger - it may be tender and uncomfortable to touch.
  • Changes to bowel habits or urination (such as frequency, constipation or diarrhea) which is not related to a virus or other condition.
  • Unexpected weight loss or gain.
  • Prolonged fatigue and a general feeling of being ill (malaise).
  • A change in appetite, difficulty swallowing or discomfort after eating.
  • A persistent cough that lasts for an extended period of time.
  • Unexplained bleeding or discharge from the rectum, urethra or vagina.
  • Changes to the color and shape of existing freckles, moles and birthmarks, as well as the development of new areas of discoloration on the skin.

Cancer Screening and Detection

Cancer Facts for People over 50Early detection is a vital part of improving the treatment options and survivability of all types of cancer; many cancer screening tests are designed to detect abnormal changes in the body before they develop into cancer.

Here are some of the most common screening tests for specific forms of cancer:

  • Breast Cancer - Monthly self-examinations are recommended to both women and men while annual mammograms are suggested for women age 40 and older.
  • Prostate Cancer - As the most common form of fatal cancer among elderly men, males over the age of 40 are advised to have an annual rectal exam during which their doctor checks for abnormalities of the prostate such as swelling or hardness. Men can also request a simple blood test known as PSA - irregularities in this test appear in advance of any noticeable symptoms, making this one of the best ways to detect prostate cancer.
  • Colorectal Cancers - Regular screening for cancers of the colon are recommended for people over 50 as well as those with a family history. A stool sample test to check for traces of blood in the stool (resulting from growths or tears in the colon) should be performed annually. Doctors also recommend inspecting the inside of the lower colon every 5 years. (sigmoidoscopy), while the entire colon should be inspected every 10 years (colonoscopy).

If a tumor is detected, a biopsy may be performed - this involves either partial or complete removal of the tumor for examination in a medical laboratory to determine if it is malignant (cancerous) or non-malignant (non-cancerous). Other cancer screening tests include x-rays of the lungs and bones, blood testing, MRI and CT scans.

Cancer Treatment Options

Cancer can be treated in a variety of ways. Often, cancer patients are given a combination of therapies based on the stage and location of their cancer, their overall health and what outcome they are seeking from the treatment. Cancers which are localized (such as skin cancer) are often removed surgically, while dispersed cancers (such as cancers of the blood, lungs and bones) may require radiation or chemotherapy.

Alternative therapies such as the use of natural supplements, special diets and lifestyle modifications are becoming increasingly popular among cancer patients as a way to both reduce the side effects of aggressive cancer treatments and minimize the stress associated with the disease.

Cancer and Seniors

As people age, their chances of developing some form of cancer increases. More than half of all new cancer diagnoses and 70 percent of cancer deaths affect seniors over 65. Often pain management and quality of life are the priorities for elderly cancer patients, particularly those who cannot tolerate surgery or other treatments.

Age-related conditions like arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and poor tissue recovery can reduce the effectiveness of many cancer treatments among seniors, while the stress of having a serious disease like cancer can increase a senior’s need for assistance with daily living activities.

Ways to Reduce Cancer Risks

While some cancer risk factors cannot be changed (such as age and family history) an individual can minimize the risks by minimizing their exposure to carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substances like tobacco smoke and UV rays. Alcohol should be consumed in moderation (less than 2 drinks per day). A healthy diet that is low in saturated fats and high in fiber is advised, and whenever possible, physical activity should be integrated a person’s daily routine.

Cancer Resources and Links

To learn more about ways to prevent, detect and treat cancer, consult the following online resources:

Skin Cancer Foundation - A comprehensive online resource dedicated to the prevention, detection and treatment of skin cancers. The website includes plain-language guides about how to monitor for signs of skin cancer (including detailed color photos for comparison), prevention tips and links to resources and services for people with melanoma.

American Cancer Society - The official website of the American Cancer Society, a century-old non-profit organization dedicated to the eradication of cancer. Site includes detailed information about all aspects of the disease, including statistics, research reviews and links to local branches of the society located throughout the country. This multilingual, multimedia site provides information is offered in English and Spanish along with online resources geared towards people of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and South Asian heritage.

National Cancer Institute - This online resource from the U.S. National Institutes of Health provides current information for both the public and healthcare providers on clinical trials, research studies and the latest news related to cancer prevention, detection and treatment. Included are detailed cancer-specific guides that discuss testing and treatment options as well as links to to support services, information about drug therapies and alternative medicine options for cancer patients.

Susan G. Komen Foundation - A bilingual (English/Spanish) breast cancer-specific website which includes articles and videos on breast cancer testing, treatments and research, as well as information about the Susan G. Komen Race For A Cure fundraising program.