You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone without some direct exposure to cancer, either through his or her own battle to overcome it or a loved one’s struggle. Cancer is second only to cardiovascular problems in causing people in the United States to fail to reach their unique Hayflick limit (the number of times their cells can divide and renew themselves). It is possible to develop cancer at any age. Certain types of this disease—lung, prostate, breast, colorectal, and skin cancer—are more common than others, but they vary by type with regard to how easy they are to treat and how soon you’re likely to return to a state of optimal health. What can you do to protect yourself from getting cancer? Some types can readily be prevented. Lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer-related deaths, is largely preventable with avoidance of cigarette smoking and second hand smoke inhalation. Risk reduction for certain other cancers is more surprising. For instance, people with diabetes are more likely to develop colon cancer, leaving no doubt that you can lower your risk by achieving more effective control of blood glucose levels; you can also often prevent type 2 diabetes with lifestyle improvements to avoid raising your risk of this cancer at all. To help you stay young for longer, this article discusses the more common types of cancer, what you can do to reduce your risk of developing them, along with how to stay healthier and more vital during medical treatments, if you do have to receive them.
What Causes Cancer and How Widespread Is It?
Cancer results when your own cells start reproducing at a faster rate than normal, usually due to an alteration in the cells’ DNA. As you live longer, you’ll experience a number of conditions that can increase the odds of getting cancer, such as declines in immune function, longer exposure to potential carcinogens, random gene mutations, a lesser ability to repair bodily injuries, and hormonal changes. Some cancers appear to run in families, but those types usually express themselves when people are younger. It still remains difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of most cancers. Although a diagnosis of cancer is still one of the most dreaded, nowadays cutting-edge advances in medicine allow many types to be treated and completely cured.
This good news needs to be tempered with the fact that the risk of cancer increases with age. People between sixty-five and seventy-four years old have a two- to threefold greater chance of developing it than those between fifty and sixty years old. Cancer is the most common cause of death in people ages sixty to seventy years and the second leading cause in anyone older than eighty. In spite of a fall in its overall incidence in the population as a whole, the fact that the American population is rapidly graying has resulted in an increase in the total number of cases.
Which Cancers Are More Survivable and Common?
Cancer comes in many different forms. Some are relatively benign, such as a slow-growing skin type, while others like pancreatic cancer grow rapidly. Moreover, it can remain localized to one area, or
it can spread through the blood or lymph system to distant parts of the body. When the latter happens, it is called metastatic. Cancer more commonly spreads via the lymph system, which explains why nearby lymph nodes (e.g., in the armpits for breast tumors) are checked for the presence of abnormal cells as well.
Certain types are more survivable, depending on whether they are localized or spread around the body, as you can see in above Table. In general, the sooner a cancer is diagnosed, the greater your chances of stopping its spread and treating it effectively. Later in this article, you will also learn which screening tests are recommended for early detection and treatment of the more common and easily treatable types.
Lung Cancer. Overwhelmingly, lung cancer is the most common type in anyone older than sixty, followed closely by colorectal. As mentioned, many lung cancer cases could be prevented by avoidance of smoking tobacco products in any form and limited exposure to second hand smoke. Likewise, if you stop smoking and never start again, you’ll lower your risk of developing lung cancer or of having it recur. An increase in antioxidants naturally through intake of more vegetables and fruits may also lower risk.
Colorectal Cancer. Colorectal cancer can affect both the colon, or the large intestine, and the end of the colon, or the rectum. In almost all cases of colorectal cancer, early detection can lead to a cure, making regular screening for anyone older than fifty a must. Its incidence may also be lower in people who eat a low-fat, high fiber diet, have a limited intake of red meat, and exercise regularly, so adopt these healthier habits to reduce your risk.
Breast Cancer. In women of any age, breast cancer is slightly more common than colorectal. Although younger women certainly can get breast cancer, its incidence in women rises markedly between the ages of sixty-five and eighty-five, and 45 percent of all new cases are diagnosed in women older than sixty-five. Still, that leaves more than half (55 percent) being diagnosed in younger women and also in men. Most breast cancers are located in the upper, outer quadrant of the breast. Other common areas are found under the nipple; in the upper, inner quadrant; and in the lower, inner quadrant. Risk factors include a family history of this cancer, being childless or having children for the first time after age thirty-five, higher intake of animal fats and alcohol, and physical inactivity, among other things. Monthly breast self-exams, along with mammograms (more on these screenings later in this article), may facilitate early detection.
Prostate Cancer. In men, prostate cancer occurs just about as frequently as colorectal. The prostate gland in males is normally about the size and shape of a walnut and is located at the base of the bladder. Its front also surrounds the urethra, the tube that urine flows through. For any American male, the lifetime risk of developing prostate cancer is about 10 percent, although it’s rare in men younger than fifty. Older men experience a forty fold increase in its prevalence between the ages of fifty and eighty-five. It’s believed that a high-fat diet may increase your risk of developing this cancer. Some types of prostate cancer are slow-growing and may not become a serious threat to health, but other, more aggressive ones can be.
Prostate cancer often has no symptoms, particularly in the early stages. Symptoms are more likely to occur if and when your cancer grows in the prostate gland and narrows the urethra. Watch out for difficulty in starting to pass urine; a weak, sometimes intermittent flow; dribbling before and after urinating; a frequent or urgent need to urinate; getting up several times in the night to visit the bathroom; (rarely) blood in the urine; and pain during orgasm.
Tip for Better Health
For a number of reasons, cancer occurs more frequently the older you get. The most common forms of cancer are lung, colorectal, breast (women), prostate (men), and skin, almost all of which are preventable to some degree with dietary improvements, increased physical activity, or other means.
These symptoms are similar to ones produced by a common noncancerous disease called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) where the prostate becomes enlarged. Caused by the multiplication of noncancerous prostate cells, this type of enlargement is very common as well, affecting about half of men in their sixties and up to 90 percent of men in their seventies and eighties. It is less common in men who exercise regularly, though. Luckily, although BPH can cause annoying urinary problems, the presence of prostate gland enlargement is not believed to be directly related to cancer development there.
Skin Cancer. Skin cancers also occur frequently. Worldwide, one in three cancers is skin-related, and among people of all ages, skin cancers currently account for one-half of all cases in the United States. Many are easy to cure if detected early with a thorough skin exam performed by a doctor. Watch for any unusual nodules, lesions, or patches anywhere on your skin; any changes in a mole; or any sores that do not heal, and have them checked out by a doctor. Severe sunburns in childhood and adolescence increase your risk for malignant melanoma, which is much less easily cured and more often a fatal form of skin cancer. Its incidence has purportedly doubled in the past thirty years among Americans, according to the World Health Organization, but you can lower your risk by avoiding tanning salons and by using natural sunscreen to prevent sunburns.
Is Cancer Different as You Get Older?
Your immune system, particularly the natural killer cells, plays an important role in destroying cancer cells before they can accumulate in your body, and your immune system declines over time, making cancer harder to fight on your own. Loss of telomeres, the ends of chromosomes that control the rate at which cells divide, also occurs as you get older and may play a role in cancer development, along with the body’s decreasing ability to repair genetic material found in your DNA.
When it comes down to it, older cells are more prone to developing cancer and when they do become cancerous, they often behave differently. Some cancers, such as breast cancer, actually grow more slowly when you’re older. Accordingly, cancer is more likely to respond to hormonal therapy in women older than fifty as there are receptors for estrogen and progesterone in the breast. Certain other types, like acute myelogenous leukemia, respond less well to treatments the older a person gets.
Tip for Better Health
Even when you’re older, as long as you’re healthy you should respond as favorably to cancer treatments as anyone younger, so treat it aggressively. Also, try to prevent cancer from occurring through appropriate lifestyle changes like more physical activity, which can work as a preventive therapy even when you’re fifty or older.
Can Cancer Be Prevented?
In 1950, smoking was shown to be the number one cause of preventable cancer. Since then, other lifestyle alterations such as the use of natural sunscreen and increased physical activity have been found to lessen the chances of developing other types, although none is as powerful as smoking cessation’s benefit to the lungs. Lifestyle factors with a clear benefit, a probable effect, or a possible one are listed in the sidebar “Lifestyle Factors for Preventing Specific
Cancers” along with the cancers most likely prevented (given in parentheses) are as follows.
Lifestyle Factors for Preventing Specific Cancers
- Do not smoke or chew tobacco (lung, oral, esophageal).
- Use sunblock and avoid excessive sun exposure (skin).
- Avoid occupational exposure to cancer-causing toxins or use appropriate protective clothing (skin, lung, and others).
- Increase physical activity (colon and breast).
- Avoid being overweight (colon, breast, and uterine).
- Eat more fruits and vegetables (colon, lung, and possibly others).
- Limit intake of red meat (colon).
- Do not consume alcohol excessively (oral, esophageal, breast, and pancreatic).
- Take folic acid and supplements (colon and breast).
- Take selenium supplements (lung, prostate, and colon).
- Take vitamin E supplements (prostate).
*Note that eating a balanced diet with citrus fruit, broccoli, leafy vegetables, asparagus, and tuna most probably is as good as taking these supplemental vitamins and minerals.
Regular Screening Saves Lives
Although there is no evidence yet that early detection reduces men’s risk of dying from prostate cancer, regular screenings to detect breast, colon, cervical, and other cancers may in fact increase your chances of surviving them. If you develop any of the symptoms suggestive of cancer or if your risk is higher than average due to family history or other factors, discuss appropriate approaches to screening and diagnosis with your cancer doctor. Symptoms suggestive of cancer include a change in bowel or bladder habits, a sore that does not heal, unusual bleeding or discharge, thickening or a lump in breasts or elsewhere, indigestion or difficulty in swallowing, obvious change in a wart or mole, or a nagging cough or hoarseness.
Tip for Better Health
Early detection of certain cancers such as breast and colon increases your chances of beating them and remaining healthy for longer. Cancer screenings that are recommended vary with the specific type of cancer, your age, and your unique risk. To determine which screenings to routinely have and the best schedule to follow, consult with your doctor or check the guidelines given by the American Cancer Society at cancer.org.
General screening recommendations are shown in the following Table. Currently, there is no recommended screening for lung cancer, although two tools have been developed: chest radiography and sputum cytology. Computerized tomography (CT) screening may be useful for early detection and better survival if you’re at high risk for lung cancer (e.g., if you have a history of heavy smoking). Certain screenings have recently become controversial, with debates occurring over the usefulness of breast self-exams and mammography, but they still make sense for the majority of women.
Cancer Therapies Available Today
As far as cancer is concerned, a delay of a few days is unlikely to make a difference to your health, so don’t be embarrassed to get a second opinion. If you want to, search for more information on your specific cancer before deciding on which treatment(s) to have. The number of therapies used to treat cancer is constantly increasing, but varies with the type of cancer, its location, and how advanced it is. Therapies commonly employed include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, bone marrow transplantation, and biotherapy. Each may be used alone or in conjunction with others, and you may need a combination of two or more for the best outcome in terms of your chances of survival and longevity.
Cancer and most of its therapies cause side effects. A common one is loss of appetite and weight loss, but eating multiple small meals in a day may help. Another is fatigue, but in most cases staying as active as you can and exercising regularly will allow you to maintain function and prevent additional tiredness that results from being out-of-shape physically.
Tip for Better Health
Commonly used cancer treatments include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, bone marrow transplantation, and biotherapy. Each of these therapies may be used alone or in conjunction with others, depending on the type of cancer. If you’re unsure about what would be best, research your options and consider getting a second opinion.
Surgery is used for cancers that are localized and easily accessible, such as breast, uterine, cervical, and prostate. It may involve a local incision or require removal of lymph nodes in or near the affected area as well. About 60 percent of cancer patients choose to have surgery, and half of them are cured with this treatment alone. Side effects include pain, infection, fatigue, loss of mobility, and loss of organs or limbs.
Chemotherapy is used to treat cancer that has spread (metastasized), or it may be introduced as a secondary line of treatment following surgical removal of a tumour with the goal of treating cancerous areas that may not have been detected on an x-ray or scan. “Chemo” is delivered to all parts of the body through the bloodstream following injection of the drug into a vein or after being taken as a pill by mouth. This therapy is given in repeated cycles of drug delivery followed by recovery periods, so it’s not unusual for a course of chemotherapy to take three to nine months. You may experience such side effects as increased risk for infections (fever), low white blood cell count, temporary hair loss, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, ulcers of the mouth, candida (a fungal infection), and fatigue. Discuss with your cancer doctor whether you are a candidate for injections that boost white and red blood cells and often decrease the fatigue commonly caused by these treatments.
Like surgery, radiation therapy is used for localized cancers that have not spread. More than half of all cancer patients opt to have radiation treatment as part of their therapy, either using a focused, high-energy ray or radioactive implants. The energy ray is painless and is often repeated several times a week over two to three weeks. Be assured that you won’t be radioactive or dangerous to other people when receiving this therapy. The implants allow for a more concentrated dose of radiation to be administered to a smaller area for a shorter period of time. They are placed in or near the tumour while you’re under local or general anaesthesia. Once the implants are surgically removed, no radioactivity remains in the body.
Proton or neutron beam therapy is another specialized form of radiation offered at some cancer centres. If radiation is recommended for you, you should explore whether gamma ray therapy (Cyber Knife) may be better for you. It will require going to a specialized centre and may not be as convenient to get for that reason.
For all types of radiation, the usual side effects are fatigue, local irritation of the skin, loss of appetite, hair loss at the irradiated site, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea.
This treatment option involves the use of chemicals that are either naturally produced or that resemble your own hormones. They include corticosteroids, oestrogens, progesterone, tamoxifen, and androgens. This therapy often requires the administration of larger doses of hormones than are normally produced by your body and results in side effects that are temporary. Breast cancer in older women is usually more responsive to hormone therapies than when it occurs at a younger age. Mood changes, fluid retention, difficulty sleeping, and osteoporosis are all possible following this therapy.
Biotherapy, also called immunotherapy, uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer or to decrease the side effects of other types of cancer treatments. This treatment may interfere with cancer growth, or it may help repair normal cells damaged by other cancer treatments. Drugs such as interleukins, interferon’s, or tumour necrosis factor are currently being studied in several on-going clinical trials.
Other Medical Therapies
Alternate medical therapies may be available to treat your cancer, depending on the type. Gene therapy is a promising treatment being studied to determine its usefulness and safety, but it is not used routinely at present. Ask about clinical trials in your area and whether or not you would be eligible to participate.
Alternative Cancer Therapies
Out of desperation, many people seek a variety of alternative therapies or healers after being diagnosed with cancer. While in some areas of medicine alternative therapies are very effective, cancer is not one of them. Numerous alternative therapies are often touted for their ability to cure cancer, but in most cases they’re really drugs in disguise and are best avoided. If you’re considering one of these alternatives, discuss it with your doctor. If you decide to pursue it, let your doctor know because some of these therapies are extremely toxic and can interact dangerously with any conventional drugs you may already be receiving.
Certain alternative therapies have been shown to be sound, but none of these involves herbs or supplements of any kind. One example of an effective therapy is a positive attitude, which may enhance your body’s immune system, thereby decreasing the aggressiveness of your cancer. A positive attitude also makes it easier to cope with the variety of adverse factors that being a cancer patient can bring. Spirituality also can have positive effects; prayer may help the healing process, and religion provides tremendous emotional support. Likewise, exercise increases your circulating levels of beta-endorphins (your body’s own morphine-like mood enhancer) and enhances natural killer cells, which are immune cells responsible in part for killing cancer cells. These supportive approaches should not replace appropriate medical therapy, but rather should be considered fellow travellers alongside one another during your journey to become a cancer survivor.
Tip for Better Health
Sound alternative therapies for cancer don’t include herbs or supplements. Instead, try a positive attitude to boost your immune function, spirituality or religion for support, and exercise to raise your feel-good (beta-endorphin) brain hormones, in conjunction with standard medical treatments.
Will Your Cancer Come Back?
There is no standard of care yet about how often you should be rescreened if you have already had cancer. In the absence of any guidelines, you should likely be screened every three months for two years afterward for returning signs of your cancer. The goal of this increased surveillance is to find the cancer before the symptoms return. This increased rate of screening applies only to the specific type of cancer you had. If the cancer does not return within two years, then the schedule for screening is reduced over the next few years to the frequency recommended for people who never had it.
A Final Word About This Article
A diagnosis of cancer, although frightening, is not a reason to lose hope. Instead, it is a time to explore options and make a plan to get the best care you can. The more allies you have on your road to recovery, the more likely you are to survive the cancer and thrive afterward. Some cancers appear to run in families, but those types usually express themselves when people are young. Other types are preventable through lifestyle choices. The single greatest risk factor for getting cancer is aging. The older you become, the greater your chances of getting this disease for myriad reasons.
Whatever the cause, the importance of early detection through screening and quick treatment following detection, after considering all of your treatment options, can’t be overemphasized.