Cancer is that dreaded word and diagnosis feared by all. Some types of cancer can be treated successfully in the elderly, sometimes with a cure, at other times with a very prolonged remission. It is frequently believed at this point in time, that a cancer diagnosis is not necessarily an eminent death sentence. Even when cancer is relatively advanced , many symptoms may be effectively managed, although it is still true that many if not most older people with advanced cancer may eventually die from the disease.
Cancer is caused by a group of cells ( but usually begins with one cell) that become defective and begin growing out of control. Healthy cells become transformed into cancerous cells in a very complex way. The first stage is the initiation stage in which a change in the cell’s genetic material sets the stage for a cell to become cancerous. Initiation is believed to be caused by various cancer-causing agents (carcinogens), such as tobacco, chemicals or radiation. The second stage is called the promotion stage in which a cell that has been initiated then comes cancerous. Promotion may be caused by substances in an individual’s environment.
Cancers can begin anywhere in the body, but some are more common than others. They can also develop at any age, but are much more common in older people. Over half of all cancer diagnoses and half of all cancer deaths occur in people over the age of 65. Older people are especially more prone to lung, breast, prostate and colon cancer.
Cancer is believed to be more common in older people for a variety of reasons. The longer a person is alive, the more exposure they have to cancer-causing agents. The immune system is believed to become less active and less effective with increasing age, which reduces its protective ability against cancer. Also, the body’s ability to repair damage to genetic material inside the cell declines with age, allowing for more opportunity for cancer cell initiation. Fortunately, there is some evidence that certain types of cancer are actually less aggressive in older people.
Cancers are damaging in a number of ways. As they grow they are known to invade and damage nearby organs and other parts of the body. The cancer may also interfere with the function of organs and tissues simply by pressing up against them. They can also spread to distant tissues producing collections of cells (called metastases) that may then invade and damage tissues and blood vessels in these new areas. Cancers may also produce hormones or similar chemical substances, which can travel throughout the bloodstream wreaking havoc throughout the entire body.
Some information from The Merck Manual of Health of Aging
Additional information and web page by Paul Susic Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist (Health Psychology)