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Silent Symptoms of Cancer Seniors Need to Know

What every senior should know about cancer, according to experts. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

According to the National Library of Medicine, "In the elderly, cancer is one of the predominant causes of mortality and morbidity, and its incidence increases with aging. Sixty percent of all cases with cancer, and 70% of cancer-related deaths occur in patients aged 65 years and over." Early detection is vital and knowing the signs of cancer can be lifesaving. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with  Dr. Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies who explained cancer symptoms seniors should be aware of. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss Already Had COVID? These Symptoms May "Never Go Away".


How Does Cancer Affect Seniors Differently?

Crying elderly woman with cancer and a volunteer taking care of her

Dr. Mitchell shares, "Over the years, I have seen many seniors being diagnosed with cancer. Sometimes people respond with complete shock, and others with seeming calmness. For some, the diagnosis comes as a complete surprise, but for others, it confirms a suspicion. Regardless of the response, the cancer diagnosis is significant and often has a ripple effect throughout the family and the senior diagnosed with cancer. The current working definition of senior is a mere 65 years young. However, many people are still working to varying degrees; some are self-employed and have businesses that depend on them. Others are already in assisted living care because of other health challenges. 

So, the question is, 'does cancer affect seniors differently, if at all?' There are hundreds of different cancers, each with varying complications and prognosis. Plus, seniors are not the same. Some seniors have more strength and vitality than the average 30-year-old, and some look and feel much older than their actual age. Cancer is, at the very least, a two-way relationship. First, we must recognize how the individual's body responds to cancer and how cancer responds to the body. As mentioned, there are so many factors. To answer this question, I will have to speak in general terms. I fully am aware there are exceptions to the rules. For example, if cancer had been slow growing or got largely undetected and finally diagnosed in a senior, that cancer would have had the opportunity to invade further into the body, far away from the primary cancer site. As a result, cancers that have spread or metastasized have a worse prognosis. Also, by the time a person has reached their senior age, the cumulative effects of lifestyle choices, environmental conditions, genetics, and other stressors would have taken a toll on the body and the mind. For example, if an individual was health conscious, was blessed with "good genes," and lived in the ideal environment, with the wisdom and financial support to deal with a cancer diagnosis—then one can safely assume this individual will have a higher chance of survival. 

Also, if these seniors were diligent and their health providers were proactive in their approach to care, preventative screening tests would have been performed regularly. This would increase the likelihood of picking up diseases that can be detected in the early stage. In my approach to health, I also like to look at the emotional and mental side, as I know how one feels, one's mindset, and outlook on life, can profoundly impact cancers and how they respond to treatment and progress. For example, research has shown that there may be a connection between the mind and cancer. Regardless of the outcomes of future clinical trials, I believe that one's outlook on life, social support, and a drive to keep on living positively impact cancer survival and the overall wellbeing of cancer patients." 


How Can Seniors Tell the Difference Between Normal Aging and Signs of Cancer?

middle-aged man chatting with doctor

Dr. Mitchell explains, "On a cellular level, aging human cells would lose their function and are less responsive. But, on the other hand, cancer cells are cells that have gone rogue. They typically increase their cellular function and, in many cases, quickly divide and grow. So while we are still searching for the fountain of youth, aging is inevitable. Some signs of cancer can overlap the normal aging process, at least initially. However, as the disease burden spreads, there are increased mutations in the body; and further impairment in cellular function, and the cancer symptoms can start to differ significantly." 




According to Dr. Mitchell, "Bleeding from any orifice is a concern—whether it is rectal bleeding, vaginal bleeding, coughing up blood, gums bleeding, or non-healing skin lesions—all of this is a cause of concern. One does not have to produce significant blood for this to be a problem. For example, colorectal cancers may start with microscopic blood in the stools, which may not be visible to the naked eye. However, the blood can be detected through stool testing. In my clinical practice, I frequently remind my menopausal and senior ladies that vaginal bleeding is endometrial (uterine) cancer until proven otherwise. In medicine, a senior with a history of smoking or asbestos exposure and who presents with blood in their sputum has cancer until proven otherwise. Cancer cells might start bleeding as their blood vessels might be fragile. However, over time, as it grows, it pushes on surrounding tissues and causes them to bleed. I am not trying to alarm readers, but I do want to nudge you, ever so gently but firmly, in the right direction. Please seek medical attention as soon as possible, as you might be battling undiagnosed cancer." 


Weight Loss

weight loss

"In my experience, I do not recall meeting any seniors who had unexplained weight loss without there being a significant diagnosis behind the weight loss," Dr. Mitchell says. "The cancer cell requires a lot of energy to grow, and like a parasite, it will hijack your body's system, sucking you of energy. Weight loss can also be a result of the location of cancer. Throat cancers might make it hard to swallow solids, thus, making it hard to keep on your weight. In seniors, unexplained weight loss is something that needs to be addressed. This is one of the reasons I recommend that anyone concerned about cancer or has conditions that impact weight should be weighing themselves regularly. How can one accurately keep track of things that you do not measure?" 



Sacred mature woman.

Dr. Mitchell says, "This is a sign that can be a late sign of cancer, as it might be a result of cancer spreading to the brain or there being a primary brain cancer. Either way, confusion, changes in memory, moods, and a host of overlapping symptoms should not be ignored. Changes in memory can come with age, but there are many seniors, and even those far advanced in age, who are still quite sharp and functioning independently. I have seen some pretty remarkable seniors who remained sharp even in their 90s." 



Senior woman feels pain in head

Dr. Mitchell explains, "Fever can be a sign of cancer, though more commonly in later stages. However, fever can be a symptom early in leukemias or lymphomas. Cancers can produce heat-producing substances and impact the brain's temperature control region- the hypothalamus. Fever can result from the body's attempt to fight off an illness. For seniors diagnosed with cancer, what might have been considered a mild fever before the onset of cancer, might be severe in a cancer patient. When in doubt, keep a thermometer at hand, and check your temperature periodically. It is essential to know that certain medications cause fever, and drug interactions can contribute to this. The more a senior is on the greater potential for adverse interactions and side effects, such as fever.   In conclusion, it is essential to be aware of your health and take the necessary steps to stay healthy. Keep your body active and your mind sharp, and live life fully. Being a senior does not mean that you are destined for poor health." And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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