Q. My dad is elderly and is scheduled to start treatment for cancer. We are concerned about his ability to tolerate treatment side effects given his age.

A.

The single greatest risk factor for cancer is aging. Our population is living longer and cancer is a disease that occurs in older adults. There is no clear data, however, showing that certain cancer treatments, when appropriate, should not be offered on the basis of age. The only exception is when there are pre-existing health problems.

Chronic health problems unrelated to cancer — such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease or arthritis — do need to be considered with regard to cancer treatment and its side effects. For an older adult, it is important that the choice of treatment plan takes into account his or her overall health status, including:

  • any medications being taken and their possible interaction with cancer treatments
  • the person’s mobility, balance, and memory
  • any nutritional needs or restrictions
  • social supports, including who will be there to help with daily concerns like grocery shopping, cooking, and providing transportation to medical appointments.

It is appropriate for you and your dad to expect to control treatment side effects. Before your father starts treatment, make sure his doctor knows about any medications he is currently taking for other health problems, and ask about what treatment side effects he should expect. In many cancer centers, there are health care specialists that will work with your doctor to help manage treatment side effects. Talk with your dad’s doctor about symptoms you and he are worried about. Don’t be afraid, embarrassed, or hesitate to ask questions, voice your opinion, and seek the care your dad needs and deserves.

For more information, read these CancerCare publications:

Our professional oncology social workers can also help people with cancer and their loved ones with the practical and emotional concerns arising from a cancer diagnosis. Contact us 1-800-813-HOPE (4673).