Recent research shows many older cancer patients can tolerate more aggressive cancer treatment than they have typically received in the past. Still, the demands in treating an 80- or 90-year-old with cancer are often different.
“The common thought used to be that it wasn’t worth treating cancer in older patients; that they’d lived their lives; they might be dying anyway; they couldn’t tolerate the treatment; the treatment might adversely affect their quality of life; or that they didn’t want to live with the side effects of treatment,” says Gary Shapiro, MD, chairman of the department of Oncology at Johns Hopkins Bayview and co-founder of its Geriatric Oncology Program.
That would not have been particularly good news to many older adults like Charlotte, an 82-year-old woman who five years ago was diagnosed with breast cancer. Today, after surgery and chemotherapy, she remains in remission and lives an active live that includes traveling, taking adult education courses, gardening and spending quality time with her children and grandchildren. It was not so long ago that an elderly person suffering from cancer would have received limited treatment and been sent home to die.
Cancer can strike anyone at any age, but it is considered a disease of aging. Certain cancers, such as breast, colon, prostate, pancreatic, lung, bladder and stomach, are linked directly to aging. For lung cancer, as an example, the average age of onset is 72; for colon cancer it’s 71; breast cancer is 68.
As a means of treating Seniors or Elderly individuals with cancer, Geriatric Oncology programs have sprung up around the country. These programs focus on the unique needs of older patients. They take into consideration their complex medical histories, interactions of treatment with numerous drugs they are likely to be taking, possible effects on cognitive abilities, and general loss of organ function that occurs naturally among older people.
In addition, many Seniors or Elderly individuals are burdened with other medical conditions as well, such as heart disease or diabetes. Cancer may impact these diseases, or conversely, the diseases may impact the cancer. All treatments have to be managed together, which is what a Geriatric Oncology team does. At certain hospitals, a medical ethicist may also be on staff to handle the often complex questions older patients may face, such as when treatment is called for and when it may be best to hold off.
If a Senior or Elderly person under your care is dealing with cancer, look for a doctor in a facility with a Geriatric Oncology unit. If there isn’t one, choose an Oncologist that has significant experience with Senior or Elderly patients.