Boomer Unchained: Our Cancer Risk Increases With Age
All you have to do is say the word “colonoscopy” and most older adults cringe. I don’t even have to describe what the night before feels like, the fullness, the cramps in the abdomen, the nausea, the hours glued to the toilet, if you are over 60 (Well, I hope I don’t have to describe it to you. If I do, it means you have avoided this critically important cancer-screening test).
Most of my friends in their 70s swear they will never have another one. They say they are old enough to forego the experience.
I’m here to tell you that as I approach 70 years of age, I’m not ready to give up on cancer screening, because I am not ready to give up on life. Does that sound like I’m being over dramatic?
I don’t think so (And yes, I am someone known to be dramatic).
Cancer statistics reveal that the rate of colon cancer diagnosis escalates dramatically after age 70. In fact, the highest rates are in the 80s.
If you stop having colonoscopies at 68 years of age, for example, feasibly you are at risk of being diagnosed with colon cancer before 80. In a colonoscopy procedure, the doctor can remove polyps that can grow into cancer. Those polyps take several years to grow. That’s why one is supposed to get these procedures at least once every decade, or more often if the doctor determines necessary. One really wants the doctor to find and remove polyps before cancer develops.
I have friends who are extremely active in their late 70s. It’s really not old age anymore, especially around southern Delaware where there are so many opportunities to be involved in social groups, exercise, yoga and Tai Chi classes, theater, cinema, travel, and eating, not to mention massages and facials, pedicures and manicures that make us feel good.
I am friends with four women who are in their 90s. All of them are still delightful and engaged. Two still drive – carefully and safely, I add here. One of them figured out she could continue to fly if she tells the airlines she needs a wheelchair to get on and off the plane. Such joy in her voice when she told me that she can now regularly fly to Milwaukee to visit her cousins. She walks great, by the way, and doesn’t even need a cane. It’s just that at the airports, the distances and security lines are far too great for her. If you have flown recently, you know what I am talking about.
Friends in their 70s tell me that since they’ve never had polyps, they don’t need to have a colonoscopy. Well, I just had a colonoscopy at age 69, and for the first time ever the gastroenterologist removed two polyps and one was precancerous. I had never had polyps before, nor any kind of screening that showed possible cancer.
That diagnosis freaked me out – I am still a little rattled. Discovering that one of the polyps was precancerous reminded me that even though I feel young, and work out at Seabarre fitness four times a week, and walk four or more miles every few days, my body knows the truth. It’s getting old and things can go wrong. Isn’t that what cancer is, things going wrong? Cancer is like any of a litany of diseases that show up late in life: Diabetes. Heart disease. Kidney failure…
I’m going back for another colonoscopy at 74, fully prepared to have another uncomfortable and horrible night when I have to do everything I can to avoid throwing up.
We older women also have to keep up with our mammograms, pap smears, annual skin cancer exams, and chest X-rays for lung cancer (there is a protocol for those who have smoked), and if we get weird symptoms (see links below to CDC’s cancer pages) we can’t be shy about speaking to our physicians. There is even a Medicare-paid ultrasound of the chest to check for a life-threatening abdominal aortic aneurysm (that’s when the main artery in your body has a bulge in it that if it bursts, can kill you) if you were a smoker when you were younger.
Originally for this blog, I had planned to talk about famous older women, inspiring women like Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench, Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, all in their 80s (I know some of you don’t think Jane should be in this group due to some of her political activities decades ago).
I was going to talk about Helen Mirren, now in her 70s and also an inspiring woman. My initial idea was to celebrate how strong these women are, how creative, how involved. But after unexpectedly learning my gastroenterologist found and removed two polyps, I had to talk about cancer and preventive care as it was on the forefront of my mind. I googled all of the women I mention above and found one thing they have in common. They have either survived cancer or they have been vocal advocates for those with cancer.
Of course, we all know about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She has been diagnosed several times, gets treated and continues to remain on the Court to fight for what she believes is right. She is truly an inspiration to many of us. And, I would be completely surprised (knowing nothing for sure) if she avoids colonoscopies, even at her age. This is pure speculation.
In an ideal world, all of us have the drive and fight within us like these women have, the belief in something, the love for others, to keep us going. I have that as a goal in my heart, to keep going as long as I can, to enjoy life and to make some kind of positive difference.
Included below are links to two websites where you can get information about cancer.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Cancer Incident and Mortality in Delaware 2011-2015
Delaware Department of Health and Social services, Division of Public Health 2019