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Your Cancer Risk After 50

What can I do to increase my chances of staying disease-free?

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En español | You can lower your odds, even if cancer runs in your family. Middle-aged adults who drink moderately, exercise, eat right and don't smoke are three times more likely to be free of chronic diseases, including cancer.

I used to bake in the sun as a teen. Am I going to get skin cancer?

We can't deny it: The risk of skin cancer jumps when you have more than five sunburns. But despite those long-ago summers, you can still take steps today to slash your risks by half. Applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day before heading out the door (yes, no matter what the weather is like) dramatically cuts your risk. And a 2017 analysis of 13 studies found that coffee drinkers had an 18 percent lower risk of basal cell carcinoma. (Note: Decaf didn't work.)

Does having one kind of cancer make me prone to other kinds?

Statistically, yes. If you smoked, you're at increased risk for not only lung cancer but also a dozen other cancers, including oral, cervical, bladder and pancreatic. And a Stanford University study found that people diagnosed with six or more basal cell carcinomas have more than three times the odds for developing future cancers, such as breast, colon and prostate cancer as well as leukemia and lymphoma — likely due to an underlying problem in genes that repair DNA. Plus, women who have had breast cancer are more at risk for another type of breast cancer, as well as other cancers. But remember, statistics apply to the general population, not to you as an individual. Talk to your doctor, and make sure to follow screening recommendations thoroughly.

I should get a colonoscopy, but I've been putting it off. What if I have colon cancer?

You probably don't have colon cancer, though your chances of developing it decrease if you have a colonoscopy, since it also allows the doctor to zap any precancerous polyps encountered during the procedure (aka cancer prevention). If you are simply spooked by the exam, you have other options. A fecal occult blood test, or fecal immunochemical test, involves sending a small stool sample to a lab, which analyzes it for blood. A stool DNA test (such as Cologuard) screens for cancer cells. The catch? These tests can't prevent cancer; they can only detect it, says gastroenterologist Darrell M. Gray, a member of the Cancer Control research program at Ohio State University in Columbus. And remember: If you test positive, the next step is a colonoscopy anyway.


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How do I find out if I carry the “cancer gene"?

If you have a family history of cancer, especially in relatives age 50 or younger, you might want to look into testing. But do it in a smart way, says Heather Hampel, associate director at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center. That means coordinating genetic testing with genetic counseling, so an expert can put your results in perspective and recommend an action plan. Women who carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, for example, have up to a 72 percent chance of developing breast cancer and 44 percent chance of ovarian cancer by age 80, according to the American Cancer Society. (In the general population, women have about a 12 percent risk of breast cancer over their lifetime.) “Though those statistics sound scary, genetic testing can help doctors guide you on the best ways to prevent cancers, or diagnose them earlier, when they are treatable,” Hampel points out.

Should I be worried about HPV?

Don't be worried, but be proactive. About 45 percent of men and 40 percent of women ages 18 to 59 carry human papillomavirus, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Though most strains of HPV are harmless, a few can cause cancer, such as that of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis and anus, and back of the throat. Most of these are rare, but if you're a woman, cervical cancer screening, which now includes HPV testing, is a must. (There are currently no HPV tests for men.) Have a combined HPV and Pap test every five years until age 65. Another option: Nurx offers at-home testing to look for the HPV strains that are more likely to cause cancer. Also, use a condom with new sexual partners. “We're seeing an increase in STDs because people 50-plus are engaging in risky sexual behavior,” says geriatric physician June M. McKoy, an associate professor of medicine and preventive medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago.

I see all those ads for hepatitis C screening. Do I need it?

Yes. If you were born between 1945 and 1965, you need a onetime screening for hep C, an infection that causes serious liver disease, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Up to 85 percent of those who have it don't know it because it usually has no symptoms, notes the CDC. Most people can get rid of the virus by taking a pill for several weeks.

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