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.
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.
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.
It is important to have regular tests to check for cancer long before you might notice anything wrong. 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 now covers a number of screening tests for cancer. For more information, call the Medicare toll-free help line at 1-800-633-4227.
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 you are 50 or older, the following is a list of some screening tests that check for some specific cancers:
Although primarily diagnosed in women, breast cancer can happen to men as well.
Cervical cancer is caused by a virus, called the human papilloma virus (HPV), which can stay in the body for many years. Sometimes a doctor will test for HPV.
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.
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 (specialist in cancer treatment), a surgeon, a radiation oncologist (specialist in radiation therapy), and others. 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, 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. This is called getting a second opinion. 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 whether new treatments are safe and whether they work or work better than other treatments. If you are a cancer patient and are interested in taking part in a clinical trial, talk with your doctor. You can find out about current clinical trials for cancer from the NCI's Cancer Information Service. See the "For More Information" section.
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 (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, can provide accurate, up-to-date information about cancer. Information specialists can answer your questions in English, Spanish, and on TTY equipment. The number is easy to remember: 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237, toll-free) or 1-800-332-8615 (TTY/toll-free).
You can get answers to your questions online through the CIS instant messaging service on NCI's website at www.cancer.gov. Click on "LiveHelp online chat."
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 NIHSeniorHealth.gov (www.nihseniorhealth.gov), a senior-friendly website from the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine. This website has health information for older adults. Special features make it simple to use. For example, you can click on a button to have the text read out loud or to make the type larger.
National Institute on Aging
National Institutes of Health
U. S. Department of Health and Human Services
Publication Date: February 2010
Page Last Updated: April 12, 2012