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Healthy Living

Cancer and Age

A simple question: Does age increase the risk of developing cancer? The answer is not quite that simple.

“In a word, yes,” says hematology oncologist Thomas Lowe, MD, who is with Torrance Memorial Physician Network-Cancer Care. “The risk increases as we age. But the overall risk of dying of cancer—as far as the general population goes—has decreased by 27% over the last 25 years due to advanced cancer screening and treatment. About 37% of the American population will contract a cancer in their lifetime, not including skin and basal cell cancers. So age itself is a risk factor, but so many cancers can be cured if detected early enough.”

And there are cancers older people are more likely to develop. “Definitely the major cancers increase as we age: colon, prostate, breast and lung,” adds Dr. Lowe. “And these are the ones most detectable through screening. Colon cancer is one of the most preventable because it can take five to 10 years to develop and turn into cancer. So getting a colonoscopy at age 50 is crucial because we can see and remove polyps. Only about 60% follow this recommendation, a source of frustration to doctors.

“The American Cancer Association (ACA) is now recommending colonoscopy at age 45, since we are seeing increased risk of people younger than 50 getting colon cancer—most likely due to environment and diet. As for breast cancer, while the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has made a recommendation that women should start getting annual mammograms at age 50, we still recommend considering annual scans starting at 40 and to definitely start by age 45 as per the ACA. Interestingly, most cancers have decreased in severity, since fewer people are smoking now.”

The warning signs

In addition to getting those recommended screenings, we all should be on the lookout for unexplained symptoms that become chronic and/or worse, like abnormal bleeding, extreme and unusual fatigue, any unusual breast mass, a persistent cough—especially if you were a smoker, Dr. Lowe says. “For patients experiencing abnormal and progressive symptoms, we recommend seeing your primary care physician. Too many patients neglect symptoms, and by the time they get seen the cancer has become advanced.”

Another factor patients of any age need to consider is genetics. Torrance Memorial genetic counselor Lauren Rudichuk, MS, LCGC, says genetic counseling can help identify clues that point to an inherited cancer. “We look at your family’s cancer history for clues such as a family member’s young age at diagnosis, rare cancers, multiple cancers affecting more than one organ and multiple occurrences within a family.”

Certain cancers heighten suspicion, Rudichuk says. “Colon and uterine cancer may be due to a hereditary syndrome and often will cause an early onset, but you also can be 70 when you develop your first breast cancer. So any family history of breast cancer (including male breast cancer), ovarian, colon, uterine, pancreatic cancer or melanoma can be associated with a genetic cause, and we offer genetic counseling no matter what the age.”

The landscape of genetic testing is constantly changing as well, Rudichuk says. “Even a year ago we weren’t offering genetic testing for all pancreatic cancer, which is now part of the guidelines.”

While it might seem logical for anyone over 50 to get genetic screening, “we are not there yet,” Rudichuk says. “There are lots of studies looking at general population testing, but for now we go by our criteria and our guidelines. They identify quite a few, but not all.If you have a personal or family history of cancer, you may still benefit from a genetic evaluation, which will help you determine your risks.“

Steps to prevention

The next obvious consideration is how to prevent cancer, especially in light of the fact we are living longer. Dr. Lowe lays out the best steps:

  • Don’t smoke.
  • Limit your intake of red meat and saturated fats.
  • Follow a diet high in nutrients and antioxidants, such as the Mediterranean diet.
  • Consume tree nuts. “A diet supplemented with tree nuts has been shown to likely reduce the risk of colon cancer,” he says.
  • Get enough vitamin D. “Most people are deficient and need a supplement. Get your levels tested.”
  • Exercise and decrease your body fat. “Even if you get cancer, it’s better to have as strong a body as possible to tolerate the treatments. And excess body fat can be associated with cancer.”
  • Try turmeric. “There is limited data that it can help prevent certain cancers, though the data is still early”
  • Get your screenings. “It all starts at ages 40 to 50,” Dr. Lowe affirms.

Thomas Lowe, MD, is an oncologist with the Torrance Memorial Physician Network-Cancer Care. He practices at 514 N. Prospect Ave., 4th Floor, in Redondo Beach and can be reached at 310-750-3300. Lauren Rudichuk, MS, LCGC, is a genetic counselor and practices at Torrance Memorial Medical Center. She can be reached at 310-891-6672.