Getting older

Cancer treatment can help people of any age. Your cancer doctor cannot give you less treatment than a younger person based on your age alone.

Cancer risk and ageing

Certain things can increase the risk of developing cancer. These are called risk factors. Getting older is a risk factor for many types of cancer. It is important to be aware of changes in your body and possible symptoms of cancer.

It is also important to know about cancer screening programmes available to you.

For example, breast cancer screening usually stops at the age of 70. But if you are older than 70, you can still ask your GP to refer you for a mammogram. We have more information about cancer screening.

Cancer symptoms

You should always get advice from your GP or nurse if you:

  • notice anything unusual for you
  • have symptoms that last more than 3 weeks.

If you have possible symptoms of cancer, your GP should arrange tests or refer you to a specialist doctor as soon as possible. The earlier a cancer is treated, the more effective the treatment is.

Some cancer types have guidelines for how quickly you should be referred for certain symptoms. We have more information about possible signs and symptoms of cancer.

Talking to your doctor about treatment

Cancer treatment can help people of any age. The outcomes of cancer treatment for older people are similar to those for younger people.

This means that the treatment you are offered should not depend on how old you are. Your cancer doctor cannot give you less treatment than a younger person based on your age alone. This is called discrimination and is against the law.

But your healthcare team will consider the following when they plan your treatment:

  • your health and fitness
  • any other health conditions you have
  • your preferences.

People who are reasonably fit can usually cope with cancer treatment, whatever their age. You may be able to cope with the same treatments as a younger person. This may include intense treatments to cure the cancer, or to control it for as long as possible.

You may need more support to cope with cancer treatment if you:

  • have other health conditions
  • are less fit
  • are more frail.

You may be more likely to get certain side effects. Or you may be at higher risk of more serious side effects.

Some people choose to have less intense cancer treatment. This aims to control the cancer but also has less risk of serious side effects. For example, you might choose this option if:

  • you have other health conditions that mean intense cancer treatment is more likely to cause serious side effects or harm
  • you have a slow-growing cancer and prefer to focus on your quality of life rather than the number of years you will live.

You and your cancer doctor can make treatment decisions together using shared decision-making. They can explain the different treatments available and if any treatments may not be effective or right for you. We have more information about how cancer treatment is planned.

Checking your overall health

Before and after some treatments, your cancer doctor may check your overall health. This includes measuring how well you can do ordinary daily activities. This is sometimes called your performance status.

This information helps you and your doctor think about how a treatment may affect your:

  • ability to care for yourself
  • quality of life
  • ability to do the things that are important to you.

Doctors use different scales to help them to measure your performance status.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) system gives your healthcare team a grade or performance score between 0 and 4.

  • A score of 0 means you are fully active and can do all the things you did before your cancer diagnosis.
  • A score of 4 means you are spending most of your time in bed, needing full care.

Healthcare professionals in the NHS often use a different scale, called the Clinical Frailty Score. It also measures how much a person can do, but the scale goes from 1 to 9.

Cancer and other health conditions

If you are older, cancer treatment can be more complex. If you have other health conditions, certain cancer treatments might not be suitable for you.

Other conditions, and the medicines you take for them, might make the side effects of cancer treatment worse. Your cancer doctor can talk to you about how other health conditions can be managed during cancer treatment.

Cancer and heart health

Some cancer treatments can affect how the heart works. If you are older, you may be at a higher risk of heart problems. Or you may already have a heart condition. We have information about:

Cancer and diabetes

If you have diabetes, cancer treatment can make it difficult to control your blood sugar level. Our information about diabetes and cancer includes advice on:

Cancer and dementia

We have information about living with dementia and cancer. We also have information for people who look after someone with dementia and cancer.

Further support

Here are some other services that may be useful if you need support:

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our cancer registry information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. Shared decision making. NICE; 2021. NICE guideline [NG197]. Available from: Last accessed January 2023.

    Van Herck Y, Feyaerts A et al. Is cancer biology different in older patients? The Lancet Healthy Longevity. 2021; 2 (10): e663-e677. Last accessed January 2023.

    Clark DuMontier, Kah Poh Loh et al. Decision making in older adults with cancer. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2021; 39(19): 2164–2174. Last accessed January 2023.

  • This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been approved by members of Macmillan’s Centre of Clinical Expertise.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:

  • use plain English
  • explain medical words
  • use short sentences
  • use illustrations to explain text
  • structure the information clearly
  • make sure important points are clear.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected.

You can read more about how we produce our information here.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 July 2023
Next review: 01 July 2026
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.