Common myths about older people and cancer
There are many myths about cancer and older people. Those below are some of the more common ones.
It is better not to know that you have cancerBack to top
Many people are tempted to ignore worrying symptoms or signs such as a breast lump, because they don’t want to know they have cancer. There may be a subconscious feeling that if you ignore it for long enough it will go away. But this is not the case. Modern treatments mean that, usually, the earlier the cancer is diagnosed, the more effective the treatment and the greater the chance of a cure.
There is no effective treatment for cancerBack to top
You may have seen family members die from cancer in the past and this may have left you with the impression that cancer can’t be treated. There are now very effective treatments available for most types of cancer. Some people can be completely cured of cancer, while in others treatment can be effective in slowing down the disease, or delaying it for many years. In most people, no matter how advanced the cancer is at the time of diagnosis, treatment can improve symptoms and quality of life.
I am too old for cancer treatmentBack to top
You are never too old for any illness to be treated. Older people tend to have more than one medical condition and need more medicines, and these may interact with cancer treatments. Choosing the most suitable cancer treatment may be more difficult for your doctors, but it is usually possible.
Some people worry that their doctors will not want to ‘waste’ expensive treatments on them because of their age, and that they will miss out on the best treatments. However, everyone is entitled to receive effective treatments for all diseases, and doctors can’t restrict treatment because of your age. The National Service Framework for Older People, which guides doctors on their responsibilities and how to manage the diseases that are more common in elderly people, makes it clear that older people must have equal access to effective healthcare.
If you are not sure about the treatment that you have been offered, you can ask to be referred to another specialist for a second opinion. Your GP can refer you.
People with cancer die a painful deathBack to top
Many people with cancer never have any pain, apart from the usual discomfort after an operation if this is needed to treat their cancer. If you do have pain, there are many pain medications available to help control it. There is no need for anyone to suffer uncontrolled pain.
Your doctors and nurses will work with you to control any pain that you have, but it’s important to be honest with them. So do tell them if you are still in pain.
Pain treatments don’t become less effective if you take them regularly. It’s better to take pain tablets regularly, as your doctor has prescribed. This keeps the pain under control and means you’ll be able to move around and enjoy a good quality of life. You may need more painkillers to control the pain if you wait until it comes back. Being in pain may restrict what you can do and enjoy, so it’s important to take the medication as prescribed.
You can become addicted to morphine and other strong painkillersBack to top
People who need strong painkillers to control their pain don’t become addicted to their medications, and they don’t usually cause any harm. Sometimes, when you first start treatment with morphine or other strong painkillers, they will make you feel sick (nauseous) and a bit sleepy and ‘woozy’. Usually this settles within a week, but if not, talk to your doctor. Other pain medications may suit you better. Most painkillers can cause constipation. You should be prescribed a laxative when you start taking regular painkillers. If you become constipated ask your doctor for a laxative to keep your bowels opening regularly.
Morphine treatment speeds up deathBack to top
This isn’t true. Many people take morphine treatments (for example, MST® tablets or Zomorph® capsules) for other types of pain (such as back or neck pain) for many years without any problems, and without it speeding up their death. There is no reason to be afraid of pain treatments, or to avoid taking as much as is needed to control your pain and allow you to continue with as normal a lifestyle as possible.
Palliative care nurses only come to see you when you are about to dieBack to top
Palliative care nurses, and other symptom control specialist nurses, can be involved in a patient’s care at any time during their illness. They may see a person with cancer soon after they are diagnosed if they have pain or symptoms which need to be controlled, or if they would like emotional support to help them cope with their cancer.
These nurses are specialists in pain and symptom control, and in supporting people with cancer and their families.
People only go into hospices to dieBack to top
Although hospices began by caring for people with advanced cancer, most now offer support to people at all stages of their illness to help them cope with their cancer.
Some hospices work mainly through day centres, where people can attend for one or two days per week. Often they have home care teams, where doctors and nurses visit people in their own homes, to provide pain and symptom control and give emotional support. Some hospices have beds for inpatients and these are often used for short stays, in order to get troublesome symptoms under control or to give carers a break and patients a change of scene. This is known as respite care. The average length of stay in a hospice is about two weeks.