Caregivers for Elderly Need to Understand Pain,
Life with Cancer
Cancer more likely in senior citizens - everyday
damage to cells and genes eventually builds up; cells don't die when
they should, cancer may be next
By the National Cancer Institute
July 8, 2011 - In many American families, including
those from minority populations, people from a wide range of ages live
together under the same roof. The elder folk in these homes face what
are called the diseases of aging, including hypertension, diabetes,
arthritis, and cancer. Cancer is a common event among older people, and
as we age the risk increases, even if no one in our family has had the
disease. Whether or not your family member or older close friend lives
with you, knowing a little about the world of cancer and the elderly can
Why do older people get cancer?
Some cancers can be inherited, and others are
caused by long-term exposure to cancer-causing substances like those in
tobacco smoke. But cancer also becomes more likely as we age and
everyday damage to our cells and our genes eventually builds up. Our
body works to repair and control this damage, but when cells continue to
grow and divide and don't die when they should, cancer may develop.
Of course most symptoms of aging have nothing to do
with cancer, but older folks who don't report unusual changes to their
doctor risk missing an early cancer that could be treated successfully.
When cancer is found early, treatment may be more
likely to work. But decisions about how to treat older people may depend
more on their general health and their quality of life than on their
The presence of other health problems and the
medications they are taking for these can also affect which cancer
treatments they will receive. On the other hand, older people who are
generally healthy do as well with most treatments, including
chemotherapy, as their younger counterparts.
Pain can be one of the biggest challenges facing
older cancer patients, since their other conditions and medications they
may take can add to the pain from treatment. Thus it is important for
caregivers to be aware of the patient's overall health condition and to
monitor their pain and health status carefully.
One commonly used class of pain relievers, known as
NSAIDs, is more likely to produce side effects in older patients, such
as stomach and headaches, constipation, and confusion.
On the other
hand, older patients often don't receive opioid drugs (powerful pain
relievers such as oxycodone) because some providers and patients
themselves believe they may be dangerous. However, these drugs can prove
particularly effective in older patients who can tolerate them.
This is why family members, caregivers, and doctors
of elderly cancer patients should in consultation with the patient
try to assess not only any compromising health conditions, but also
their daily quality of life. This should include looking at their
social, emotional, and spiritual lives, all of which are likely to be
challenged by cancer treatment and recovery.
It is important for the patient and family members
(and anyone else who is advocating for the patient) to ask questions and
have open conversations with the health care team. One good way to do
this is to ask for a family meeting to discuss the patient's treatment
plan and quality of life during and after treatment.
NCI leads the National Cancer Program and the NIH
effort to dramatically reduce the burden of cancer and improve the lives
of cancer patients and their families, through research into prevention
and cancer biology, the development of new interventions, and the
training and mentoring of new researchers.
For more information about cancer, visit the NCI
web site at
www.cancer.gov/espanol or call NCI's Cancer Information Service at
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