Together We Can -- Newsletter of the Joan Karnell Cancer Center

Summer 2002

With Age, Comes Strength
Nutrition in the Senior Years
Taking Care of Others
Walking Towards Better Health
Suddenly a Senior
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With Age, Comes Strength

Cancer – “the Big C.” At one time, older patients who heard that word interpreted it as a death sentence. But not anymore. Research is finding that older adults in some cases actual fare better against the disease than their younger counterparts. The single greatest risk factor for cancer may be advancing age but age is not necessarily a disadvantage.

“When I first started talking to people about how to treat cancer in older patients, it was like talking to walls,” says Sarah H. Kagan, PhD, RN, The Doris R. Schwartz Assistant Professor of Gerontological Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and a gerontology clinical nurse specialist.

“That was 16 years ago. Today, there are an increasing number of doctors, nurses and other clinicians that specialize in gerooncology, or the care of older adults with cancer. Our goal is not to segregate patients but to ensure they receive the diagnostic services, treatment and support they need.”

How does cancer treatment differ in older versus younger patients? In general, older patients are often more resilient than they or their families expect when faced with a cancer diagnosis. Further, older adults tolerate the side effects of cancer treatment better because they often have more life experience dealing with acute and chronic symptoms.

It’s probably not the first time they have been sick and, as a result, they tend to know their bodies better, can more easily identify when something feels right or wrong and possess the emotional and psychological foundations necessary to deal with chronic illness. In fact, according to Kagan, there are a number of strategies older cancer patients can implement when they are initially diagnosed. These strategies can help capitalize on that reslience and other sources of strength.

Create a Team
Everyone should have a health care team that fits their needs. This team can include family members, doctors, nurses, clinicians, and nutritionists – all of the people who will contribute both in terms of treatment and support. Every team, of course, needs a leader. In some cases, as the patient you may want to be the team leader or you might designate a family member or a doctor or a combination of both to help you make decisions about your care.

Regardless of how you are making decisions today, be sure to designate a surrogate decision maker through a living will or durable power of attorney for health care. This person will be in charge of your health care when you cannot make decisions yourself so be sure he or she knows what you want.

Identify Your Needs
What team members are necessary for your treatment? “For example, many patients don’t add a nutritionist to the team until much later in the treatment process,” says Kagan.“You really need a nutritionist with you in the beginning so that he or she can help develop creative strategies to make good nutrition easy. It’s better to be proactive with good nutrition than to wait until a problem develops.”

Find a Buddy
It’s best to have one or two family members or friends attend every appointment with you. This way you are never alone when dealing with questions or concerns you may have. In addition, it helps to have others in the room to help hear and interpret any information the doctor may provide.

Keep a Log
On a daily basis,write down any symptoms or problems that you may be having. Identify what troubles you the most and what bothers you the least. This will enable you to see the progress of your treatment, will provide a good reservoir of information and can be a source of questions you may want to ask your doctor, your nurse or other team members.

“The most important thing to remember,” says Kagan,“is that cancer is not the only thing you do. Be sure to take time for yourself and your family. Account for what’s important to you in your life and note the things that give you contentment. Cancer is not your whole life.”


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