McFarland Clinic

Cancer & Older Adults

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June 6, 2011

As people age, their bodies slowly change in appearance and function. When people reach age 70, they are more at risk of a cancer diagnosis. Cumulative environmental exposures, pre-existing genetic aberrations (any inherited genetic problems) and age related DNA changes could all be factors in why cancer diagnoses increase with age.

While the incidence of cancer increases as people get older, the types of cancer diagnosed in adults is different than in children. Cancers commonly found in older adults include lung, colon, lymphoma and MDS (Myelodysplastic Syndrome). In women the occurrence of breast, ovary and uterine cancer increases and as does prostate cancer for men.

“MDS is a pre-leukemic state characterized by bone marrow that doesn’t produce enough blood cells. It is often mistaken as a part of the natural aging process but often needs to be treated,” says McFarland Clinic Oncologist and Hematologist Swaleh Bahamadi, MD.

Treating cancer in an older patient can be more difficult due to presence of other pre-existing medical conditions(co-morbidities) and often a long list of medications which can interact with chemotherapy.  Medications can interfere with organ functions so it is important to know what each does and how to incorporate into treatment. 

“Co-morbidities need to be managed well before starting treatment, says Dr. Bahamadi, “as a person ages, changes occur in organ function which affects how the body handles chemotherapy treatments.”

When determining whether a patient is a candidate for chemotherapy, a patient’s performance status is assessed. Simple questions about daily activities can provide doctors with an idea on how a patient will be able to handle chemotherapy. The more fit and independent a patient is, meaning being able to take care of themselves, the more likely they will tolerate chemotherapy.

“If a patient isn’t able to take care of themselves, they are not a good candidate for chemo. It will cause more harm than good,” says Dr. Bahamadi. “Maintaining the quality of life becomes more important than the number of days left.”

Having social support is also very important when undergoing treatment. Anxiety and depression are common in older adults and should be managed. Knowing that someone is able to help if problems arise is comforting to the patient.

Cancer detection starts with cancer screening. Different screening tests are incorporated into preventative care. People should also do their part in preventing cancer by staying physically active and eating a well balanced diet – and if you smoke, quit.

Learn more about the McFarland Clinic Oncology and Hematology Department located at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames, IA.


To learn more about cancer diagnosis, treatment and related topics, check out the following learning centers and articles on our online health library:


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