An Overview of Cancer


Cancer strikes people of all ages, but as your parents age, they are more likely to get cancer, even if no one in the family has had it. The good news is that cancer death rates are going down. No matter what your parent's age, the chances of surviving cancer are better today than ever before. Here is some information that will help family caregivers as they care for their aging parents, and watch for the signs of cancer.

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 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 (metastasize).

When cancer is found early, treatment is more likely to work. Early cancer treatment often can shrink or destroy cancerous cells and stop them from growing and spreading. Regular checkups and knowledge of the symptoms of cancer play an important role in early diagnosis.

Cancer Symptoms

Cancer can cause many different symptoms in your elderly parent. Family caregivers should watch for:

  • A thickening or lump in the breast, lymph node 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
  • Lasting 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
  • 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 medical conditions. If your elderly parent is having any of these symptoms or other changes in health, see a doctor as soon as possible. Don't wait to feel pain. In its early stages, cancer usually doesn't cause pain.

Cancer Treatments for Elderly People

There are a number of cancer treatments of which doctors often use several in conjunction with each other. Some of the most common cancer treatments include:


Surgery removes the malignant tumor, as well as the surrounding cells, to prevent the cancer from spreading. The surgeon may also remove some nearby lymph nodes.

Learn more about: Cancer Surgery


Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells.

Learn more about: Radiation Therapy


Chemotherapy is the use of drugs that kill cancer cells. Most patients receive chemotherapy by mouth or through a vein.

Learn more about: Chemotherapy

Recently, doctors have also been using 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.

Browse Our Free Senior Care Guides

Questions to Ask About Cancer Treatment

Family Caregivers should ask the doctor these questions before treatment begins:

  • What is my elderly parent's diagnosis?
  • Has the cancer spread? If so, where?
  • What is the stage of the disease?
  • What is the goal of treatment? What are the treatment choices? Which do you recommend for my elderly mom or dad? Why?
  • What are the expected benefits of each kind of treatment?
  • What are the risks and possible side effects of each treatment? How can side effects be managed?
  • What can I, as a caregiver, do to prepare my aging parent for treatment?
  • How often will my mom or dad have treatments? How long will treatment last?
  • What is the treatment likely to cost? Will my parent's insurance cover the costs?
  • What new treatments are under study? Would a clinical trial be appropriate for my elderly parent?

Cancer Specialists

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. The choice of treatment depends on the type of cancer your parent has, where it is in the body, and the stage it is at. You and your doctor will also take into account your parent's overall health and any specific health problems they may have.

You may have heard that older people cannot have the same treatments as younger people with cancer. But 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.

Some cancer patients take part in research studies of new treatments or try alternative 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 your parent is a cancer patient and is interested in taking part in a clinical trial, talk with your doctor. Alternative treatments may be used as an alternative or complement to traditional courses of treatment.

Can Cancer Be Prevented in Elderly People?

Although the chances of getting cancer go up as your parent gets older, there are things that he or she 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. Risk of cancer can be lowered 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 a third of all cancer deaths in the United States each year.
  • Avoid sunburns. Too much ultraviolet radiation from the sun and from other sources -- such as sunlamps and tanning booths -- damages the 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 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.
  • Exercise. Studies show that physical activity can help lower the chance of getting breast and colon cancer and perhaps other cancers too.
  • If your parent drinks 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.

Source: The National Institute on Aging (NIA)

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