Aging and Cancer

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2012

This page is currently under medical review. Please check back for updates.

Key Messages

  • Older adults have a higher risk for cancer and other diseases that may affect cancer treatment, care, and recovery.
  • When making decisions about treatment, older adults and their doctors should consider their overall health and ability to keep up with daily activities; age alone should not determine treatment options.
  • Older people with cancer often have a different set of concerns than other adults with cancer, which may affect how they cope with their disease.

Aging is the single biggest risk factor for developing cancer. However, it also increases the risk of other diseases and injury and can affect a person’s well-being, independence, and feelings of self-worth—all issues that need to be considered when cancer treatment decisions are being made, as well as during treatment.

The aging process is complex, and each person ages at a different rate. This means your actual age may not reflect your physiologic age, which can be estimated based on how well your body is functioning both physically and mentally. Age should never be the basis for making treatment decisions.

Physical changes associated with aging and their relationship to cancer

Disease and disability, which may interfere with cancer treatment and recovery, are more likely to occur in older adults. For example, age is associated with a gradual inability to accomplish daily activities, such as the use of transportation and the ability to go shopping without assistance or provide adequate nutrition for oneself. Older adults who need help in these areas have a lower tolerance of stress, including the stress of cancer treatment. By understanding what tasks an older adult can and cannot perform, it is easier to identify which form of treatment poses the least risk with the most benefit and how much supportive care a person will need.

Serious health conditions that often accompany the aging process, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, kidney disease, and arthritis, also set older adults with cancer apart from younger patients. Called co-existing or co-morbid conditions when an older adult has them in addition to cancer, they affect the treatment selections for cancer and the type and severity of treatment side effects. It is essential that older adults work with their health care team to manage any co-existing conditions and discuss the effect they might have on the treatment plan.

Older age and undertreatment

Even though cancer occurs most often in older adults, they often receive less frequent screening for cancer and fewer tests, such as biopsies (the surgical removal and examination of tissue), that help determine the stage of cancer. In some cases, they also receive milder treatments or no treatment at all, even though several studies have shown cancer treatment is beneficial for older people.

Many studies also show that people with cancer over age 65 are significantly under-represented in cancer clinical trials (research studies in people), even though they represent the majority of cancer patients. In some studies, poorer care has led to shortened survival.

What you and your family members need to take away from these studies is that it is very important to ask for information about all treatment options, including the risks, benefits, and goals. Decisions about cancer treatment are personal, and you have a right to determine what is in your best interest.

Emotional concerns and practical issues

Older people with cancer often have a different set of concerns than other adults with cancer, which may affect how they will cope with cancer. Those concerns include:

Maintaining independence. For many older adults with cancer, the biggest concerns are being able to take care of themselves and feeling like they are still in control of their health and decisions. Cancer treatment may interfere with the ability to cook and eat independently; wash or bathe independently; and walk, drive, or access transportation. Having to rely on others to care for them may not only be overwhelming but may not even be possible, especially if there are no family members or friends around to act as caregivers.

Feelings of social isolation. Older people with cancer are less likely to have a support system in place, often because they have relocated to a new home or apartment, do not live close to family, or have experienced the loss of a spouse, family members, or friends. Sometimes being isolated brings up feelings of depression and anxiety, which may interfere with treatment. Older adults may also have difficulty coping with problems associated with cancer treatment. Community resources, such as visiting nurse services and other agencies, can be set up so an older adult with cancer does not experience cancer alone. Patients and caregivers should share their concerns with doctors and social workers, who can provide useful tips and contacts for local resources.

Spiritual concerns. Spiritual and religious concerns may also factor into decisions about cancer treatment. As with other issues, effective communication between the person with cancer, a social worker, family members, and members of the religious community may be helpful.

Financial concerns. For older adults, retirement, the death of the primary wage earner, and existing financial problems often contribute to limited financial resources to pay for cancer treatment and related costs. It is important to discuss financial issues with a health care provider, as there are many resources available to help. Learn more about managing the cost of cancer care.

Physical limitations. Older adults with cancer may have medical problems that limit their physical abilities and mobility (ability to move around). Creating a safe physical environment at home often helps. Simple measures, such as improving lighting, clearing clutter from the home, avoiding flimsy, unsupportive footwear (such as flip flops), and installing safety railings on stairs or in bathrooms, may help reduce the chance of accidents or falls. A social worker or a visiting nurse service can help assess the home environment and suggest changes.

Transportation. Access to treatment depends on reliable transportation. Older adults undergoing cancer therapy may have a difficult time getting to doctor appointments, especially if the person no longer drives and is dependent on other methods of transportation. The health care team may be able to provide information about transportation assistance.

More Information

Care Management

Support and Resource Links

Cancer in Older Adults