Planning for the Worst Cancer Facts and Prevention Tips for People over 50

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 the number of cancer cases and death rates are both going down. No matter what your age, the chances of surviving cancer are better today than 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 may form a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor. If the tumor gets bigger, it can hurt 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. Getting regular checkups and knowing the symptoms of cancer can be helpful.

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 body;

• 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; or

• 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. If you are having any of these symptoms or other changes in your health, you should see a doctor as soon as possible. Don’t wait to feel pain. In its early stages, cancer usually doesn’t cause pain.

What Regular Tests Should I Have?

It is important to have regular tests to check for cancer long before you might notice anything wrong. Screening may involve a physical exam, lab tests, or tests to look at internal organs. Medicare now covers a number of screening tests for cancer.

Before recommending a screening test, your doctor will ask about your 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 a screening test does show a growth or abnormal change, it doesn’t always mean that you have cancer. You may need more tests. A biopsy is the best 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 you have cancer, you should talk with your doctor as soon as possible to decide how to treat it.

How Is Cancer Treated?

There are a number of cancer treatments. These include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), and biological therapy for some cancers. Some biological therapies help the body’s own defenses kill cancer cells. Other biological therapies block the chain of events in and around cancer cells so that they die or stop growing.

People with cancer often see different specialists. These may include a medical oncologist, a surgeon, a radiation oncologist, and others. Your 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 have, where it is in the body, and the stage it is at. You and your doctor will also take into account your overall health and any specific health problems you may have.

You may have heard that older people cannot have the same treatments as younger people with cancer. But many 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. Some insurance companies require a second opinion; others may pay for a second opinion if you ask for one.

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 (such as 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 one-third of all cancer deaths in the U.S. 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.
  • 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 breast cancer.
  • 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.

This article was prepared by the National Institute on Aging, a department of the National Institutes of Health.

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