Cancer’s Effect on Aging
Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work
NOVEMBER 19, 2021
A recent study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society reported what we have all known all along. Cancer ages us. How many times have you felt that the months or years of your cancer treatment suddenly aged your body? Although I have never before seen a study about this, I have been in countless conversations with cancer survivors who say things like: “My cancer aged me ten years.” Or “All of a sudden, I feel five years older than I did a year ago before cancer.” The physical changes may include things like reduced energy or difficulties with sleep, but there also often are specific differences. We may have aches and pains, sagging skin, reduced muscle mass, thinner hair, less libido, and wrinkles. Personally, I think it has been worth it, and I happily accept the wrinkles as a fair price for continuing good health and a longer life than I anticipated when I was first diagnosed.
How many times have you felt that the months or years of your cancer treatment suddenly aged your body?
Aging was never a major issue for me. I was lucky enough to be raised by a mother, and to know my grandmothers and great aunts, who all aged proudly and gracefully. Even if I had never had cancer, I think I would not bemoan the gray hair and the neck. Given that I have been treated for two breast cancers and am doing fine, I have completely lost any angst about aging. Instead, I almost celebrate each wrinkle as a trophy: I am here and old enough to be thinking about when I can become an eccentric old lady. I have long anticipated the time when I can wear overalls and red sneakers and pearls and not give a whit about fashion. Each birthday is a triumph of continuing good health. I refer to myself and to my husband and peers as “old,” and I assure you that they don’t like the label one bit. It is, however, the truth.
Back to the study which concluded that older adults who are cancer survivors may experience a faster functional decline than their peers who had not been through cancer. Researchers looked at data from almost 2000 adults aged 22 to 100 who were part of the Boston Longitudinal Study of Aging. Participants were evaluated for strength, walking, and overall physical condition and performance.
Looking at specifics like grip strength and walking speed as well as overall condition, there was strong evidence that cancer and its treatment may have adverse effects on aging-related processes. Again, we all already knew that. The report went on to urge researchers and doctors to identify which cancers and cancer treatments were most likely to have this effect and then to develop interventions to prevent or reduce the negative impact. They even optimistically used the word “reverse” about some of the aging, but I don’t think that the Fountain of Youth has ever been discovered, and most of us would be happy to achieve stability and a normal rate of aging decline. Among the cancer survivors in the study, prostate cancer was the most common, followed by breast cancer and melanoma. A noted limitation of the study was that the researchers had lacked data on cancer staging, pathology, or treatment specifics.
One can assume that people who received more treatment demonstrated faster functional aging than those who had less. For example, a woman with early breast cancer who has a lumpectomy and radiation only is going to be less impacted than someone who had surgery, radiation, six months of chemotherapy, and years of hormonal treatments. When I have talked with newly diagnosed people, they have expressed many worries about what lay ahead. Everyone is anxious about surgery or the future impact of radiation or chemotherapy drugs. No one welcomes hair loss and the unpleasant side effects of treatment. Some people have worried from the start about the possible impact on their appearance and sexuality. Men with prostate cancer face tough decisions about radiation treatment or surgery and the likely consequences of incontinence and/or impotence. After more than four decades of these conversations, I can’t think of anyone who ever stated a fear of accelerated aging as a concern or consideration in treatment choices.
When we are newly diagnosed and worried most about survival, we are not apt to be too worried about the pace of aging. A few years later, however, we may notice the functional and physical changes in our bodies and capabilities, and we likely wish that we had not had to subject ourselves to difficult cancer treatments. We may wonder whether our hair would be thicker, our sex lives more robust, our aches and pains fewer, and our pace faster, but we are mostly glad to be alive. And, at least I am, glad to see that someone is writing about a truth we have already known.