Hormonal changes a factor for cancer in older people

  • Walkers make their way through Mount Prospect during the second day of the Chicago Breast Cancer Komen 3-Day Walk in 2013.

    Walkers make their way through Mount Prospect during the second day of the Chicago Breast Cancer Komen 3-Day Walk in 2013. Daily Herald file, 2013

Posted9/18/2017 10:33 AM

"Why do so many people end up with cancer when they get older?" asked a cycling fan and member of Libertyville Recreation Department Teen Travelers Summer Biking Camp.

Cancer affects more than half of people older than 65.


Patients older than 65 are 10 times more likely to experience a cancer diagnosis than younger people, according to a 2006 study, "Cancer in the Elderly," conducted by researchers from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

This spike in the number of older patients with cancer is of great concern to cancer researchers and physicians. The number of people who fall into this age group, 15 percent of the population today, will grow to more than 20 percent of the population in about 30 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Cancer is the Latin word for crab, probably because it spreads like dangerously sharp and pointy crab claws. Evidence of the disease has been found in fossils and Egyptian mummies.

Cancer occurs when cells grow where they're not intended to grow and the body can't eliminate them.

"Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells," said Dr. Ermilo Barrera, a surgical oncologist at NorthShore University Health System.

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"Cancer occurs when cells lose their normal control mechanism, including normal cell death. Normal cell processes are disrupted and the bad cells normally die, but this doesn't happen with cancer. The basic problem is a genetic abnormality, which can be present at birth or acquired."

There are inherited causes for cancer, with people inheriting genes that increase the possibility of cancer, such as the BRCA genes and breast cancer.

Environmental conditions and toxins, such as cigarette smoke, pollution, and chemicals, might also cause cancer by causing mutations. The body mechanisms normally allow for these mutated cells to be repaired or to die.

"The ability for cells to repair diminishes, so there's an increased risk for older people," Barrera said.

Yet many people live cancer-free until they reach upper ages. Doctors and researchers puzzle over this health concern in older people and have found a few answers. The types of cancers found in older people are breast for women, prostate for men and colon in men and women.

In breast and prostate cancers, Barrera said, the effects of long-term hormonal changes can trigger the cell changes that cause cancer.

A study at the National Institutes of Health showed how, in some circumstances, DNA, which normally rejects an enzyme, instead bonds with that enzyme. This might disable the cell's ability to remain cancer-free.

Other studies share a conclusion -- with advanced age the body has less resilience to fight cancer.

"We really don't know why there's an inability to correct mutations which allows cells to develop abnormally," Barrera said.

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