April 17, 2013

Do you have an older loved one who has been recently diagnosed with cancer? If so, you are facing a tough question: is it better to treat the cancer, or use a “wait and watch” approach in an attempt to avoid treatment that could be debilitating because of your loved one’s age?

If you’re unsure about the best course, you’re not alone: although 60 percent of new cancer diagnoses are in people age 65 and over, there is little research out there about how to treat elderly cancer patients, and if they should even be treated at all.

Since April is Cancer Control Month, now is a great time to discuss this issue. If your elderly loved one has been recently diagnosed with cancer, the best place to start is by learning as much information as you can from your loved one’s doctor and  reputable sources of information such as those listed at the end of the blog.

Use this list of questions as a guide to help you make the most informed decisions when speaking with a medical professional:

  • What type of cancer does my loved one have?
  • How common is this type of cancer?
  • Where exactly is the cancer located?
  • What stage is this cancer, and what does that mean?
  • Do medical experts recommend treatment?
  • What kinds of treatments are used for this type of cancer?
  • What are the side effects of these treatments?
  • How will the treatments affect my loved one’s current lifestyle?
  • What will treatment likely cost, and will my loved one’s insurance cover it?
  • How will they affect my life as a caregiver?
  • What is the chance of recovery?
  • What is the best-case and worst-case prognosis?
  • What kind of lifestyle changes can my loved one make to keep as healthy as possible?
  • Is this cancer caused by genetic factors? If so, are other people in my family at risk, and what can they do to help prevent cancer?

What the doctor thinks is important, of course, but there is something even more important that is often ignored: what your loved one thinks. If your loved one is adamant about getting treatment, or equally adamant about avoiding it, you should listen to and respect their opinion. With your loved one’s personal wishes, as well as information, you’ll be equipped to decide on the best course of action for your loved one.

To learn more about cancer in older adults, visit these sources:

“No Single Path for Cancer Care in Elderly,” New York Times

“Cancer and the Elderly,” The National Cancer Institute

The American Cancer Society