Seniors: Getting the Best Cancer Care

You have many things to enjoy about getting older. Maybe you’re retired and enjoying travel and hobbies and spending time with grandchildren. But you might also have issues related to aging, such as increasing health problems.

As you get older, you're at greater risk of developing chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. Although frightening at any age, a cancer diagnosis may be of special concern to older adults because of the possibility of ageism in cancer care.

Beating cancer is the first thing on your mind, and you trust your doctors to provide the best care and treatment available. But for some older individuals, age may seem to be a disadvantage.

Research on ageism

Older adults are less likely to be screened for cancer. And if they are diagnosed with cancer, it's less likely that their doctors will recommend aggressive treatment to cure the cancer. Clinical trials may be more difficult for older adults to enter.

A United Kingdom study on lung cancer patients found discrepancies in the cancer treatment of younger patients versus older patients. Although the study didn't determine exactly why this happens, researchers found that survival rates among older adults with lung cancer were lower and that their cancers were managed differently than in younger cancer patients. For example, older adults received “active treatment” (treatment to try to cure the cancer) less often than younger patients. People who were ages 75 and older were 16% more likely to die within 6 months of diagnosis than lung cancer patients under the age of 65.

Ageism in end-of-life and post-cancer

Ageism may extend into both the cancer survival period and to end-of-life. Older adults who do receive appropriate treatment and survive cancer are often left without resources during the transition to life as a cancer survivor, when their mental and physical well-being and health are still at risk. And older adults may not get the same palliative and end-of-life care that younger cancer patients do.

Why the ageism?

Some doctors may think that older individuals simply have more difficulty tolerating cancer treatment, which is demanding on even younger, healthier bodies — patients may lose weight, suffer extreme fatigue, and be at a higher risk for infection. Infections can be more dangerous in people undergoing cancer treatment and in older adults in particular because they are already more susceptible to experiencing complications from conditions such as the flu or pneumonia.

Another concern in treating older cancer patients is that many have other health conditions that can complicate cancer treatment. Little research is available to guide doctors in determining the best course of treatment for older adults with cancer and arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, or other ailments.

Taking care of yourself

It's important that you feel involved in the decision-making process when it comes to your cancer treatment. You should feel comfortable with the ultimate decision, knowing that you had the best information possible available to you. You may want to get a second opinion from a geriatric oncologist or a doctor experienced in treating older patients with cancer.