With the world’s attention consumed by the Covid-19 Pandemic, other life threatening diseases such as cancer have been largely pushed into the background. And yet, cancer continues to claim lives, especially the lives of older people, who are at greater risk of developing the disease. Older people with cancer have the highest risk of dying if they become infected with Covid-19.
But, while we all social distance, wear masks and sanitize our hands regularly to protect ourselves from Covid, we don’t invest nearly as much time and effort in following the steps necessary to reduce our risk of developing cancer. These include giving up smoking, limiting alcohol consumption, avoiding excessive exposure to the sun, following a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruit and veggies, exercising regularly, and going for regular health checks and cancer screening.
We know that when it comes to cancer, early detection is the key to survival. If you experience any of the warning signs of cancer, it is vital to have them investigated by a health professional as soon as possible, especially if there is a history of cancer in your family. In addition, self examination – breast examination for women and testicular self-examination for men – should be part of your regular routine.
Other screening tests that should be carried out by your health professional on a regular basis, include:
• Pap smear (to detect pre-cancerous cells in the cervix
• Mammograms and clinical breast examinations (to detect abnormalities in the breast)
• PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) Testing to screen for prostate cancer
• Mole mapping and analysis to pick up skin cancer
• Faecal Occult Blood Test – screening for colorectal cancer
Older people and cancer
Older people, especially those with limited (if any) medical aid, may not be undergoing these screening tests regularly, if at all. And yet our risk of developing cancer increases as we age. Because our cell development slows down as we get older, cancerous tumours develop more slowly. Signs and symptoms may be so gradual that we miss them – or we attribute them simply to ‘old age’, because we are resigned to the unexplained aches and pains, joint stiffness, age spots and deteriorating eyesight that are an inevitable part of ageing.
The result is that elderly people generally don’t seek help until it is too late.
Even if they suspect they may be ill, older people are often too frightened to go to the doctor and have their worst fears confirmed. They have grown up during a time when cancer was synonymous with pain, suffering and death. Most are not be aware of the many improvements in treatments available today. Their attitude towards serious illness is one of denial and resignation. Many feel that undergoing treatment at their age is not worthwhile, while others believe that the treatment for cancer is worse than the disease itself. The most feared treatment is chemotherapy, with many believing that the side effects of vomiting and hair loss are unavoidable.
Cancer in the Elderly Survey
Based on a 2017 study by Tania Estapé, PhD, pulished in the Asia Pacific Journal Oncology Nursing in 2018, only one in two elderly people believes that cancer can be prevented. While almost all of them knew that tobacco and exposure to the sun could lead to cancer, only 38% cited diet and being overweight as risk factors. Theirs is a generation that was not encouraged to take responsibility for their own wellness, in terms of making healthy choices regarding food, habits and exercise. When they were growing up, health was something you only thought about when you got sick. Then you went to the doctor, who would decide on the appropriate course of action.
Even today, oncologists tend to treat older patients differently. They are less likely to explain the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment options candidly with older patients, especially if the patient is terminally ill. Instead they tend to treat them like children; decisions about treatment are made between the doctor and the patient’s family, while the patient is kept very much in the dark. Yet the Asia Pacific article states that data collected during the survey show that “77.2% of older people prefer to know their cancer diagnosis and prognosis.”
Cancer and depression
It should come as no surprise that hearing the words, “You have cancer” results in feelings of fear and depression. While the diagnosis is devastating at any age, older people with cancer experience much greater levels of depression and anxiety than young people. These feelings may be heightened if the elder is already experiencing loneliness, bereavement, loss of interest in activities that previously brought pleasure, fatigue and physical weakness.
Religion is a common coping mechanism among the elderly with cancer. Patients attribute the cause and course of their illness to God’s will. They express their acceptance as, “what God wants” or “I put myself in Jesus’ hands”. Some studies show that this type of coping offers an important psychological advantage to those who believe it.
While Tafta is not able to offer cancer screening tests or medical intervention for those suffering from cancer, we do arrange specialised counselling to help patients cope with the shock and fear that often accompanies a cancer diagnosis. We also help with dispensing medication that has been prescribed by the doctor, if the patient resides within our frail care or assisted living units, or uses the services of our carers.
We encourage cancer patients to make use of the services provided by the CANSA Association,
including individual counselling and local support groups for survivors and those living with cancer.