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How cancer impacts older patients

The rapid growth of the population in the United States has resulted in an increase in the number of cancer patients who were diagnosed with having cancer when they were older. A national survey found that 1,806,590 people were newly diagnosed with having cancer in just this year, and 60% of those were diagnosed when 65 years or older. This major increase in the average life expectancy of men and women over the past 50 years is largely due to the development of effective treatments for cancer patients at an earlier age. Older patients, who have just been diagnosed, don’t have the advantage of being treated at an earlier age, with more effective treatments. Further, as cancer patients age along with their other serious medical problems increasing, there is a combined impact on their ability to function and the quality of their lives.

We need to learn more specifically in what ways cancer affects older cancer patients’ lives compared to those who are younger. Overall, in a number of large studies, older cancer patients said that they felt better emotionally and that they had a better quality of life than younger cancer patients. More specifically, other large studies found that when compared to those who are younger, older cancer patients had greater satisfaction with their medical care, fewer needs in their lives, were better able to get back to doing activities that they enjoyed, didn’t feel so tired, and had fewer financial problems. One of the most important things older cancer patients talk about is how wonderful it is to have grandchildren in their lives. As an older patient said: “I would not want to give up the time that I spend with my grandniece and grandnephew. It is the high point of my week. That’s my purpose for this year.”

Other studies have found that older cancer patients have a worse quality of life than younger patients, which have been largely due to physical problems that come with getting older. The physical problems that make older cancer patients’ lives so very difficult include having greater difficulty in walking, more medical problems in addition to having cancer, more pain when they move around, and becoming increasingly frail as they get older. Consequently, those who have any of these physical problems also need to get help from their family and friends, such as doing chores around the house, going to stores to get things that are needed, and doing things they love to do but are no longer able to do, such as going to movies. Further, as older cancer patients get older, some of their family and friends will also get older or die. One older cancer patient said when this happened to them, “I’m lucky if somebody calls me once a month. There were seven or eight of my friends who sat together in church. Now they are all gone. They either moved out of the area or just don’t come anymore. I sit next to myself. I eat alone. It’s hard to eat alone all the time.” In addition, older cancer patients are afraid of getting older. As one patient said, “I think of the consequences of aging, such as not being able to take care of myself.”

My book, Older Survivors of Cancer, further explores these issues. I felt it was important to write this book due to the increasingly large number of older cancer patients in the United States, particularly as older patients continue to age. Initially, doctors began to recognize and then develop new medical treatments, specific to older cancer patients, particularly those who were now in their 80s and 90s. After effective new treatments had begun to be developed and found to be successful, attention has turned to also improving the quality of their lives: emotionally, how well they were functioning, their relationships with their family and friends, and their social life. Despite the growth in the number of older cancer patients, and the importance of these issues, almost no books have been written concerning the quality of their lives.

In order to better understand how having had cancer affects older patients’ lives, we must address the first-hand experiences of each patient from before diagnosis up to the present. I feel it is important to set up dialogues between one older cancer survivor and another, who may have had the same type of cancer and age as themselves. That connection between older cancer survivors is very powerful in improving their quality of life—that they don’t feel so alone, that they feel understood. In addition, we must support their family, friends, and any person who becomes increasingly afraid of getting cancer as they get older. Having survived cancer at an older age, along with an improvement in the quality of their lives, is exactly what older cancer survivors want, and what they need.

Featured image by MabelAmber via Pixabay

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