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Cancer Part 1: History and Types of cancer affecting people 50 and over

Cancer Part 1: History and Types of cancer affecting people 50 and over
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Certain cancers are common occurrences for people who are 50+. Here’s a bit of history and cancer types that might affect you or someone you know.

Cancer is the unchecked growth of cells resulting in tumors and ultimately the failure of organs or other parts of the body from blood to bones. It’s alarming to consider the many types of cancers and one type of cancer will often spread or “metastasize” to other parts of the body.

Statistically, cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. It’s estimated that half of all men and one-third or all women in the U.S. will develop cancer during their lifetimes.  This is especially true for people over 50 due to extended years of exposure to carcinogens like tobacco, alcohol, viruses, chemicals; exposure to the sun or other forms of radiation.  To date, the World Health Organization has identified more than 100 chemical, physical, and biological carcinogens.

These carcinogens are the trigger for abnormal cell growth and treatments from surgery to chemotherapy or radiation are used to destroy these cancer cells and prevent their spread.   A critical finding was that normal cells that are damaged tend to die, while abnormal cells that are damaged continue to duplicate.

Historically, the ancient Egyptians were the first to diagnose and attempt to treat cancer dating back to 3,000 years ago with various forms of surgery, although one papyrus says, “There is no treatment.” 

It was Hippocrates who invented the terms “carcinos” and “carcinoma” to describe forms of cancer. These terms are derived from words referring to a crab due to the crab-like shape of many tumors.  The Latin word for crab is “cancer” which is actually one of the signs of the zodiac for a crab-like constellation.

A Greek physician named Galen described swelling which is common with some forms of cancer using the word “oncos.”  This was the origin of the name for specialists in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer:  “Oncologist.”

Recent discoveries have revealed many new techniques and approaches to cancer causes. In fact, we’ve learned more about cancer in the last two decades than was known across all of the centuries preceding.

Common cancer types in people 50+

While this list is by no means exhaustive, it is representative of some of the more common cancers that affect men and women over the age of 50:

    • Lung Cancer caused by chemicals like nicotine and carbon dioxide, particles like asbestos and coal dust and viruses that infect the respiratory system.
    • Breast Cancer.  While the majority of people who contract breast cancer are women, it occurs in men in some cases as well.  A variety of causes can lead to breast cancer and there is now some indication that certain types of hormone therapies taken by women after menopause can cause breast cancer.
    • Prostate Cancer.  A cancer that strikes many men who are 50+.  Can be treated surgically and/or with targeted treatments.
    • Colon Cancer.  Often linked to carcinogens in certain foods and viruses in the digestive system.  Typically treated surgically with the possible addition of targeted treatments like radiation and chemotherapy.
    • Leukemia.  The most common form of blood cancer.  Often the result of chemical exposures but other triggers like viral infections can also be a cause.
    • Pancreatic Cancer.  More common in men than women and difficult to treat.  Unlike some cancers that can be surgically removed, the pancreas is a vital internal organ regulating insulin and blood sugar levels.
    • Bone Cancer.  Sometimes bone cancer is the result of a different form of cancer already inside the body.  It can also be caused by exposure to carcinogens and is sometimes the result of a carcinogenic virus.
    • Throat, Tongue and Esophageal Cancer.  Typically these forms of cancer are the result of tobacco use either through cigarettes, cigars or chewing tobacco. 
    • Skin Cancer.  This form of cancer is common in people 50+ typically as a result of long exposure to the sun.   People who worked outdoors or spent significant amounts of time outdoors without sunscreen are prone to a variety of skin cancer types.  Melanomas can also occur when a mole, which is already an abnormal collection of cells is exposed to radiation or other carcinogenic triggers.
    • Lymphatic Cancer. Commonly caused by other forms of cancer invading the blood stream.  Often treated with surgery and a common marker for metasasized cancer.  Typically the result of an untreated cancer in another form. 

There are other forms of cancer that can afflict anyone regardless of age, but age brings with it a simple fact: the longer you’re exposed to potential carcinogens over the years the more likely you will develop a form of cancer.

This first part in the Cancer Series is intended as an overview.  In part two we’ll cover symptoms and diagnostic tests, and in part three we’ll explore new and emerging treatment options and prognosis.  The good news is that more and more people are surviving cancer and living cancer free.





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