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Is Cancer Curable in the Elderly?

Cancer is one of the most common life threatening medical conditions seen across the globe. The elderly are comprise the highest risk group for most cancers and at times treatment options may be limited and the prognosis poorer due to their ae. The fact is that certain procedures like surgically removing a cancer or the entire cancerous organ may be considered curative. However, this does not mean that cancer is curable in every case. It largely depends on the type of cancer, location, staging and grading of the malignancy. There is no single cure for all types of cancer but modern medical science has made significant advances in cancer treatment over the past 30 years.

Why is cancer incurable?

To understand why cancer is incurable in certain instances, it is important to first look at the nature of the disease. Normal cells have a specific structure and function determined by genes. It also has a certain lifespan. Once the cell reaches the end of its lifespan, it undergoes programmed cell death which is known as apoptosis. Sometimes a severely damaged cell may die or be destroyed by the body and depending on the site, it can then be replaced by a new healthy cell. These normal cells grow in a set configuration to form tissues which in turn are organized to form organs.

Cancerous cells do not adhere to these ‘rules’. Due to genetic damage or mutations, the cancer cells grow abnormally. The structure and arrangement of the cells is such that it infiltrates healthy tissue and does not die off as a cell normally would. Cancer cells can also break away and lodge elsewhere in the body where it can multiply unchecked, compressing healthy cells or even destroying it. The body has several mechanisms to prevent this abnormality from arising or persisting but in cancer, these defenses either fail or are ineffective.

Cancer can be Treated

Despite a lack of a cure for all types of cancers, there are several effective measures to treat malignancies. In the early stages, a localized cancer within an organ can be surgically removed along with some of the surrounding healthy tissue. Provided that the cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes or distant sites, surgery can be curative in these cases. However, it does not guarantee that that the cancer will not return. Similarly the other cancer treatment options like chemotherapy or radiation therapy can destroy the some of the cancer cells, limit its spread or put the cancer in remission.

In a minority of cases, the cancer can go into remission on own. Even in these instances, there is always the possibility that the cancer can recur. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are intended to destroy cancerous cells either through drugs or the use of high energy electromagnetic waves. It may be a means of treating cancer when surgery alone is not a viable option. Sometimes it is done to solely ease the suffering of the patient and prolong their lifespan but it is not a definitive cure for cancer.

Cancer and the Elderly

The elderly are often at a greater risk for developing most diseases. Furthermore, the outlook (prognosis) is also poorer as age progresses when compared to young adults. Age-related changes in the body, particularly in the immune system, coupled with lifelong exposure to factors that increase the risk of cancer, means that the elderly are more prone. Therapeutic options also becomes limited with age. A person’s general health status, irrespective of age, is always taken into consideration before commencing with cancer treatments. The elderly who are in poor health and severely debilitated may not always be considered candidates for certain cancer treatments.

Furthermore cancer treatments, like with any therapeutic measure, requires the body’s innate healing ability to take over and repair any damage. Aging drastically impairs this healing ability. This does not mean that cancer should be left untreated in the elderly. However, it may not always be viable to commence treatment either due to the person’s state of health or the spread of cancer throughout the body. The focus in these cases is at easing the cancer patient’s symptoms (palliative) and improving the quality of life in the time that is remaining.


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