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 ever had cancer. The good news is that cases of cancer and death rates are going down. That means that no matter what your age, the chances of surviving cancer are better today than ever before.
Cancer begins when cells in a part of the body become abnormal. These cells make more and more abnormal cells forming a mass of tissue called a growth or a cancerous (malignant) tumor. Cancer usually starts in one part of the body. But, if the cancer tumor gets bigger, it can damage nearby tissues and organs. Cancer cells also can break away and spread to other parts of the body (this is called metastatic cancer).
When cancer is found early, treatment is more likely to work. Early treatment can shrink or destroy the cancer tumor and stop it from growing and spreading. Getting regular checkups and knowing the symptoms of cancer can be helpful for finding some cancers early.
Cancer can cause many different symptoms. Here are some things to watch for:
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.
Checking for cancer when you don’t have symptoms is called screening. Screening may involve a physical exam, lab tests, or tests to look at internal organs.
Medicare covers a number of screening tests for cancer. For more information, call the Medicare toll-free help-line at 1-800-633-4227 or visit their website at www.medicare.gov.
Before recommending a screening test, your doctor will look at your age, past medical problems, family medical problems, general health, and lifestyle. Talk with your doctor about your concerns or questions about cancer screening so that you know what to expect from the tests. It is important to understand the possible benefits and harm of screening tests before deciding what might be best for you.
Here is a list of screening tests, by cancer type, to consider if you are 50 or older:
Researchers are working to find the best screening test for prostate cancer. Here are two tests that doctors sometimes use for detecting prostate cancer:
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 and your doctor should discuss a treatment plan as soon as possible.
There are a number of cancer treatments. These include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy (anti-cancer drugs), and biological therapy for some cancers. People with cancer often see different specialists like a medical oncologist (specialist in cancer treatment), a surgeon, and a radiation oncologist (specialist in radiation therapy). The 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, including where it is in the body and how much it has grown and spread (its stage). You and your doctor will also take into account your overall health and any other conditions.
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 to get a second opinion. This is when another doctor goes over your diagnosis and treatment plan. Some insurance companies require a second opinion; others may pay for a second opinion if you ask for one.
Some cancer patients take part in studies of new treatments. These studies—called clinical trials—are meant to find out if new treatments are safe and whether they work as well as or better than other treatments. If you are a cancer patient and interested in taking part in a clinical trial, talk with your doctor. You can find out about current clinical trials for cancer from the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service. See “For More Information” below.
Experts think that cancer may often 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 (weed killers and insect killers) can also make your risk of cancer higher. You can lower your risk of cancer in several ways:
The Cancer Information Service (CIS), a program of the National Cancer Institute at NIH, can provide accurate, up-to-date information about cancer. Information specialists can answer your questions in English and Spanish. The number is toll-free and easy to remember: 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
You can get answers to your questions online through the CIS instant messaging service on the National Cancer Institute website at www.cancer.gov. Click on “LiveHelp online chat.”
Here is another helpful resource:
National Library of Medicine
For more information about health and aging, contact:
To sign up for regular email alerts about new publications and other information from the NIA, go to www.nia.nih.gov/health.
Visit www.nihseniorhealth.gov, a senior-friendly website from the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine. This website has health and wellness information for older adults. Special features make it simple to use. For example, you can click on a button to make the type larger.
National Institute on Aging
National Institutes of Health
U. S. Department of Health and Human Services
Publication Date: February 2013
Page Last Updated: October 17, 2013