Older Survivors: Don’t Write Us Off
There’s a large and growing population of breast cancer survivors out there: older women. While much attention of late has been focused on younger survivors and their needs, breast cancer is still predominately an older woman’s disease, with the largest survivor population composed of women over 60. What are our special concerns?
I’m having a birthday next month. And I’ll be turning 60.
If you perceive a noticeable lack of enthusiasm, you’re right. Of all the birthdays I’ve experienced, this is the first one that’s causing a little angst.
I was happy to turn 10 – double digits! And 20 – no longer a teenager! Thirty, 40, 50… all of these milestones inspired family celebrations. But to me – whatever. No big deal.
Turning 60, though – I admit to a tiny nibble of dread in my gut. Sixty marks the beginning of a decade that includes eligibility for Social Security and Medicare; qualification for all kinds of “senior citizen” perks; and, for most women, retirement – which sometimes comes as a relief, but also robs the 60-something of her peer group, a satisfying daily routine... and her income.
For that last reason alone, I’m definitely not looking forward to retirement.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 47, 12 years ago. Thankfully, I’ve not had a recurrence. The multiple surgeries, chemo, radiation, lymphedema, and hormone therapy were punishing at the time, and I still live with their lasting effects: a sore shoulder; an arm prone to swelling; an itchy chest, burning eyes, and a brain that’s not as sharp as it was. But as I said, I’m NED – no evidence of disease. And that bottom line alone is worth the daily minor irritations.
How will I feel as I continue to age, though? Will the cognitive issues – "chemo brain" – I’ve suffered as a result of chemo lead to accelerated mental decline as I reach my 70s and 80s? Will the long-standing shoulder issue due to mastectomy turn into chronic arthritis? And how about those burning eyes – hopefully the pain won’t lead to serious eyesight problems.
A recent study published in the European Journal of Oncology Nursing assesses the current landscape for breast cancer survivors age 70 and older, and is a start towards improving the life we might expect to lead as we become older survivors.
The study, “Living Into Old Age with the Consequences of Breast Cancer,” reveals an array of issues experienced by the older survivor population, most currently not being recognized. Chief among these are issues with prosthetics/arthritis; a lack of recognition of co-morbidities (other health conditions that might be exacerbated by the breast cancer experience); and a tendency for the health community to view older women as a group – “old women” – rather than as women with individual needs.
The first step towards solving a problem is recognizing that one exists; and “Living Into Old Age” is that vital first step. The study concludes, “Holistic and personalized assessment of needs becomes increasingly important with age, particularly with comorbidity.” (Scudder, 2013)
How can we, as women, take the next step: improving the current landscape for older survivors – for ourselves?
First, make sure your GP knows about your breast cancer experience, and the many ways it’s affected your health as a whole. You’ve had chemo, so your heart may already have sustained some damage; it’s important for you to concentrate on heart health. You’ve had lymphedema; maybe that senior-citizen weight-training program (s)he’s recommending needs some modification.
Second, refuse to be classified. You’re a woman first, a senior second. You’re more than a demographic statistic. If your doctor doesn’t recommend any particular treatment because “At your age…” – question him! You’ve always wanted a reconstruction, and now you have time to get one? Go for it. There’s no age limit on wanting to be comfortable in and with your body.
Third, if you’re not already doing so, get past any possible hesitancy about using the Internet to help you cope with survivorship. The study mentioned above cites a “lack of interest or motivation to seek online sources of information” among older women. (Scudder, 2013) Since you’re probably reading this piece online, you hopefully feel confident actively seeking out any information you need on the Web – in fact, it might be your doctor who discourages this online information gathering.
But if there’s anything standing between you, Google, and the huge number of survivor communities and trustworthy medical self-help sites out there, break down the barriers. “Doctor as God” is a fading belief; it takes a community – a worldwide community – to most effectively address our health issues. So pick your sites (including this one, hopefully), and visit often; the support you need, 24/7, is often just a mouse click away.
Scudder, L. (2013, May 13). The older breast cancer survivor: What does she need? Retrieved from http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/803735