About dementia and cancer

Many people diagnosed with dementia have other health conditions, such as cancer. They are often cared for at home by a family member or friend. In the UK, there are about 670,000 carers of people with dementia.

Dementia is a word used to describe a set of symptoms. These symptoms can include:

  • problems thinking clearly
  • memory loss
  • personality changes.

Dementia is caused by damage to the brain, mainly from Alzheimer’s disease or strokes. Currently, there are no treatments to prevent or cure dementia. But some treatments may help to improve the symptoms.

Cancer starts when cells in our body grow in an uncontrolled way. These cells sometimes form a lump (tumour), which may be cancer. Sometimes blood cancers develop when blood cells become abnormal. The main treatments for cancer include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted therapies.

Caring for someone with both dementia and cancer can be very difficult for you and the person you care for. It can help to get information and support.

About cancer and dementia

The main risk factor for both cancer and dementia is age. Most people with dementia are over 65 years old. About half of people diagnosed with cancer are over 70 years old.

Each year, about 352,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with cancer and about 850,000 people are living with dementia. Many people with dementia also have several other health conditions, including cancer.

Many people with dementia are cared for at home by a family member or friend. In the UK, there are about 670,000 carers of people with dementia.

Living with two conditions can be very difficult for you and the person you care for. The pages in this section talk about some of the worries you may have and ways to cope. It also gives practical information about getting help and support.

We also have a booklet for people with dementia and cancer. You can order a free copy from be.Macmillan.

Dealing with Dad’s dementia alongside his cancer diagnosis and treatment is, at times, challenging on my part.

Mary, who cares for her father


What is cancer?

Cancer starts in cells in our body. Cells are tiny building blocks that make up the organs and tissues in our bodies. They divide to make new cells in a controlled way. This is how our bodies grow, heal and repair.

Cells receive signals from the body telling them when to divide and grow, and when to stop growing. When a cell is no longer needed or cannot be repaired, it gets a signal to stop working and dies.

Cancer develops when the normal workings of a cell go wrong and the cell becomes abnormal. The abnormal cell keeps dividing, making more and more abnormal cells.

These may form a lump (tumour), which may be cancer. Sometimes blood cancers develop when blood cells become abnormal. 

Doctors may remove a small sample of tissue or cells. This is called a biopsy. The doctor then examines the sample under a microscope to look for cancer cells.

Treatments for cancer

The main treatments for cancer are surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted therapies.

The treatment depends on:

  • where in the body the cancer started
  • the size of the cancer 
  • whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body
  • the person’s general health 
  • any other conditions they have, such as dementia.

The doctor will consider all these things when planning treatment. They can affect how well certain cancer treatments work or whether someone is well enough to have them.


What is dementia?

Dementia is a term used to describe many different conditions. There are many types of dementia, so each person affected may have different symptoms. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia.

Dementia is caused by damage to the brain. The symptoms depend on the type of dementia and which part of the brain is affected. Symptoms can include:

  • problems thinking clearly
  • finding it hard to solve simple problems
  • not remembering or using the right words
  • being confused or disorientated
  • changes to behaviour or personality.

Dementia is usually thought of in three different stages – early, middle and late. These stages are a guide to how dementia might develop over time. But dementia is different for each person and the stage will depend on different factors, including:

  • the type of dementia
  • the person’s general health
  • the support available
  • whether the person is having treatment for dementia.

Some people may not notice symptoms at first. Or symptoms may come and go, while others get worse over time (progressive). As the dementia moves into a later stage, someone with dementia may need help with everyday activities.

Sometimes the stages of dementia overlap. This may mean they need help with one type of task or activity, but can manage others on their own.

Some types of behaviour can be challenging and distressing.

Treatments for dementia

Currently, there are no treatments to prevent or cure dementia. But researchers are looking at medical treatments and vaccines.

Some treatments may help to improve the symptoms, but these are mostly only for people with Alzheimer’s disease. The treatments can sometimes slow dementia for a while. 

Drug treatments for dementia have some side effects that mean they are not suitable for everyone. Doctors and nurses who specialise in dementia can tell you more about which treatments may be suitable for the person you care for.

There are two main types of treatment for dementia:

  • Non-drug treatments – these may include talking therapies, counselling and support at home.
  • Drug treatments – these include drugs that can help for a while with memory problems, and drugs that can help with hallucinations or treat depression and anxiety.

People who have dementia caused by strokes may be given drug treatments to treat the cause of the strokes. This might include drugs for high blood pressure, heart problems or high cholesterol. They may also be given advice about lifestyle changes that may help, such as stopping smoking.

Talk to the dementia doctor or nurse to find out more about treatment for dementia and what might help.

Back to Dementia and cancer

Advanced cancer and dementia

If it is not possible to control the cancer, the person you care for will be able to have treatments to manage any symptoms.