Cancer in later life
Nowadays, people are living much longer than they used to. The longer we live, the longer our bodies are exposed to chemicals (such as cigarette smoke) and environmental factors (such as sunlight), which increase the risk of cancer developing.
As we age, our immune system becomes less effective at identifying abnormal cells and destroying them before they have a chance to develop into cancers. So, most types of cancer are more common in older people. Some cancers, such as particular cancers of the prostate, stomach and breast may grow very slowly in older people.
As you get older, you’re more likely to suffer from a variety of aches and pains, as well as other symptoms. It’s easy to assume that new symptoms are just part of the ageing process and ignore them. However, you should discuss any new symptoms with your GP, so that they can decide if they are a normal part of getting older, or whether you need to have tests to find out what is wrong.
In particular, if you notice any of the following symptoms let your GP know, as they could be a sign of cancer:
- Hoarseness of the voice that lasts more than three weeks.
- A cough that lasts more than three weeks, or coughing up blood.
- A lump that doesn’t go away.
- A sore that won’t heal.
- A change in the size, shape or colour of a mole, or any change in the skin.
- Blood in the bowel movements or urine.
- Bleeding from the vagina.
- Indigestion that doesn’t go away or keeps coming back.
- Unexplained weight loss.
- A change in bowel habit that lasts longer than six weeks.
It’s important to remember that all these symptoms can be caused by conditions other than cancer.
Some people with cancer are reluctant or embarrassed to have tests carried out at an early stage, and don’t go to their GP until the cancer has grown or already spread. However, if cancer is found early, treatment is more likely to be successful.
You might find our information on signs and symptoms of cancer useful.
A diagnosis of cancer is a devastating experience for most people. Many people feel shocked, angry, numb and unable to believe what is happening or to feel any emotion. Some people feel as though the situation is happening to someone else, as though they are watching themselves from the outside.
At first you may find that all you can take in is the fact that you have cancer. Some people have said that once they were told they had cancer, they didn’t hear the rest of the conversation at all.
You may feel panicky and have physical symptoms such as:
- over breathing (hyperventilating)
- palpitations (a sensation of your heart beating too fast)
- a dry mouth
- feeling sick (nausea).
You may find that you can only take in small amounts of information at a time and that you have to keep asking the same questions again, or need to be told the same bits of information repeatedly. This is a common reaction to shock. Some people find their feelings of disbelief make it difficult for them to talk about their illness with their family and friends. Other people may feel an overwhelming urge to discuss it with everyone.
The diagnosis and treatment may make you feel a range of strong emotions such as fear, anger, sadness or depression. These emotions can be very frightening and difficult to deal with. They generally get easier to manage as you learn to deal with what has happened. Often you need time to express your feelings before you can adjust to your situation and begin to cope with life again.
Some people find that they need help learning to deal with their feelings and emotions. There are many ways of coping with the emotions and feelings that cancer can cause.
You might find our information about the emotional effects of cancer useful.