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How does general health and age affect cancer?

Is the mortality rate for cancers higher when the person is older and in poor health?

Generally speaking the answer is probably yes. But to some extent, this will depend on the type of cancer, the stage at which it is diagnosed and the type of treatment needed.

Some kinds of cancer are very likely to be cured - for example squamous or basal cell skin cancer. They can easily be removed with surgery or other treatments. Other types of cancer are more difficult to treat, such as lung cancer, pancreatic cancer and oesophageal cancer.

Some older people who have health problems may not be able to have the treatment that they need for their cancer. For example, some cancer treatments such as a bone marrow transplant have age and fitness limits. Your heart and lungs have to be tested before you can have the treatment. This is because it is a very intensive treatment and you simply may not get through it if you are not fit enough.

Cancer treatment can be hard. A long course of chemotherapy or radiotherapy - or both - can really take it out of you. If you are in good health and reasonably fit when you are diagnosed, you will have greater reserves of energy to get you through. Sometimes it may not be possible to have a big operation or an intensive course of cancer treatment because you already have an illness that makes the risks too great. Heart or lung problems in particular can mean it is not safe for you to have a long anaesthetic.

But there are often ways round many of these difficulties. Sometimes people have operations under epidural anaesthetic if they are not well enough to have a general anaesthetic. People with heart or kidney problems can't have some chemotherapy drugs. But there are usually other drugs the doctor can choose instead.

It can help to talk to your doctor and explain your worries and fears. Together you should be able to come up with a treatment plan that is best for you.

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Updated: 17 April 2013