With age comes the increased risk for certain diseases and health problems. At age 51 I was hit with a diagnosis of cancer. When I reviewed the statistics and information on cancer and who gets it, I was quite surprised to realize that one of the risk factors is aging. There were other things I learned about cancer that was quite alarming. I think we all want to believe we are immune to it. It can strike anyone, anytime, but those 50 and older are more susceptible.
“Ageing is another fundamental factor for the development of cancer. The incidence of cancer rises dramatically with age, most likely due to a build-up of risks for specific cancers that increase with age. The overall risk accumulation is combined with the tendency for cellular repair mechanisms to be less effective as a person grows older.” – World Health Organization
The Canadian Cancer Society states cancer is the leading form of death in Canada and is responsible for 30% of all deaths. The most common types of cancer are lung, breast, prostate, and colorectal (not including non-melanoma skin cancer). Most people who are affected by cancer are aged 50 and older. In fact, 89% of all cancers occur in those 50 and up.
Unfortunately, 1 in 2 Canadians (49% men and 45% women) are expected to develop cancer in their lifetime; 1 in 4 will die from cancer.
Research is always being done and we know that about half of all cancers can be prevented by lifestyle choices. The Mayo Clinic states there are seven things we can do to reduce our cancer risk:
- Don’t use tobacco.
- Maintain a healthy body weight and be physically active.
- Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.
- Get vaccinated (Hep B and HPV)
- Practice sun safety.
- Avoid risky behaviour (practice safe sex, don’t share needles).
- Get regular medical care (cancer screening tests)
Cancer is caused by changes (gene mutations) to the DNA within cells. The cells receive errors and normal functioning is interrupted, allowing the cell to become cancerous. Some of these mutations are inherited from your parents, and others you acquire after birth. There are a number of known triggers that can cause gene mutations, such as smoking, radiation, viruses, cancer-causing chemicals (carcinogens), obesity, hormones, chronic inflammation and a lack of exercise. Who and why someone develops cancer while others do not still remains a mystery for the most part. Research is ongoing to answer these questions.
There are over 100 types of this life-threatening disease. There is currently no cure for cancer, but there are treatments that help extend life (such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery). Early detection is the best way to help ensure the best chances for survival. Unfortunately, many cancers don’t have any symptoms until it has spread to lymph nodes or other organs. Cancer often gets found when patients are having tests done for other health concerns.
The 10th common cancer found in women that can be successfully treated and prevented if detected early is cervical cancer. Regular screening for this type of cancer is recommended and it is performed in the doctor’s office. This is called a Pap test.
Lung cancer, colorectal cancer, breast cancer (in women) and prostate cancer (in men) are most frequent types of cancers that develop in those 50 and older. 2 out of 3 people who get lung cancer are aged 65 and older and the average age of diagnosis is 70. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women. Smokers are at a high risk for lung cancer.
Cancer screening looks for cancer before it causes symptoms. When I turned 50, I remember getting a notice in the mail for me to get a test to check for blood in my stool. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends screening for early signs of health problems that could lead to cancer. The areas that they recommend screening for those who are “older” are:
- Breast cancer – breast exam, mammography
- Colorectal cancer – Fecal Occult Blood Test
- Other screening tests include digital rectal exams and prostate cancer screening.
Although age is the number one risk factor for cancer, a family history of cancer is the second risk factor. Those who have close family relatives who have developed cancer should discuss this with their doctor. The third risk factor is obesity. Achieving or maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the risk of some cancers.
Cancer is a disease that no one likes to think about or talk about. It’s a condition that affects people of all ages but is more commonly found in those 50 and older. There are steps that can be taken to reduce our risk of getting cancer, and there are screening tests that can be done when we are feeling well. Being in tune with our bodies, reporting any unusual symptoms such as pains, bleeding, lumps or sores that don’t heal to your doctor are important steps in early detection.
Angela G. Gentile, MSW, RSW
Cancer Fact Sheet, World Health Organization. Feb. 2017. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs297/en/
Canadian Cancer Statistics 2017. http://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-101/canadian-cancer-statistics-publication/?region=bc
Cancer – Diseases and Conditions, Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cancer/basics/causes/con-20032378
Key Statistics for Lung Cancer, The American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/non-small-cell-lung-cancer/about/key-statistics.html
Angela G. Gentile MSW, RSW is a clinical social worker and author of four books, including Cancer Up the Wazoo: Stories, information, and hope for those affected by anal cancer (2018). She lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba with her husband and has two adult children. She is the creator of the Facebook community – “Aging Well for Women.” For more information, visit: www.AngelaGGentile.com