Aging Well: Cancer facts for people older than 50


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 cancer death rates are going down. No matter what your age, the chances of surviving cancer are better today than ever before.

What symptoms

should I watch for?

Cancer can cause many different symptoms. Here are some things to watch for:

- A thickening or lump in the breast 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

- 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 noncancerous (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.

What regular

tests should I have?

Regular tests are important long before you might notice anything wrong. Checking for cancer when you don't have symptoms is called screening.

Medicare now covers a number of screening tests for cancer. For more information, call the Medicare toll-free help line at 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:

- Breast Cancer: Clinical Breast Exam

- Breast Cancer: Mammogram

- Cervical Cancer: Pap Test

- Cervical and Other Cancers: Pelvic Exam

- Colorectal Cancer: Fecal Occult Blood Test, Colonoscopy or Sigmoidoscopy

- Mouth and Throat Cancers: Oral Exams

- Prostate Cancer: Digital Rectal Exam or Prostate Specific Antigen

- Skin Cancer: Skin Exams

How is cancer

usually treated?

There are a number of cancer treatments. These include surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy (anticancer drugs). Recently, doctors also have 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. People with cancer often see 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.

Are there any ways cancer can be prevented?

Although your chances of getting cancer go up as you get older, there are things that you can do to prevent it. Experts think 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) also can make your risk of cancer higher. You can lower your risk of cancer in several ways:

- Do not use tobacco products. 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 your skin and can cause skin cancer.

- Eat right. Have at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Cut down on fatty foods and eat plenty of fiber. Researchers think about a third of all cancers are linked to what we eat and drink. People who have high-fat diets are more likely to have cancer of the breast, colon, uterus and prostate.

- Keep your 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.

- Stay active. Studies show that exercise can help lower your chance of getting breast and colon cancer and perhaps other cancers, too.

- If you drink 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.

For more information

The Cancer Information Service, 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 at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) or 1-800-332-8615 (TTY).

CIS instant messaging service also is available on NCI's website at

Click on "Need Help?" Then click on "LiveHelp."

Information provided by National Institute on Aging U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Institutes of Health October 2005


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