How to cope as an older cancer patient


Age is the greatest risk factor for developing cancer. According to statistics, 60% of cancer patients are aged 65 and over – but, then again, so are 60% of cancer survivors! Older patients have specific needs. Here’s how you can manage them.

Age is just one factor that’s taken into account when it comes to your cancer treatment. Your doctors will put together a plan that’s dependent on a number of things such as your general health, lifestyle and goals. As a senior patient you’ll be faced with specific challenges that may cause you some anxiety or concern. The American Society of Clinical Oncology offers these invaluable tips on how to cope with the most common of these concerns:

Practical concerns
  • You’re dealing with other medical conditions

Before your doctors start working on your treatment plan, you need to advise them about any other medical conditions or problems you are dealing with as well as all the medication you are taking. Make sure that this information is shared with your entire healthcare team.

  • You’re concerned about transport to and from appointments

This also needs to be discussed with your family and healthcare team because your treatment will be ongoing. Together, you can come up with different transport options - whether you’re driven by a family member, friend or use a transport service like Uber.

  • You’re anxious about living on your own

Having cancer treatment (or a medical condition of any sort) may present an older person with safety issues especially if you live alone. For example, your medication may make you feel dizzy, risking falling and hurting yourself. Before you start treatment, prioritise safety in your home by:

  • Putting in better indoor and outdoor lighting
  • Clearing clutter to prevent tripping and falls
  • Only wearing sturdy shoes or slippers and not flip-flops or high heels
  • Placing railings on stairs and in bathrooms that you can hold onto when you need to
  • You need daily assistance

You may need help with things such as showering, dressing or going to the shops - especially when undergoing cancer treatment. Again this needs to be discussed with your loved ones so that the right help can be found for you. Ask for help from family or friends. Employ someone to assist you, chat to a seniors’ centre for advice or find help through a non-profit organisation that assists the elderly or assists cancer patients. Perhaps ask your church whether they can direct you to volunteers who assist the elderly.

  • You need assistance with your meals

Good nutrition is essential during cancer treatment - especially in older patients who are very likely to lose weight which can put them at risk of developing other health issues. Options for ensuring meeting your nutritional needs include having friends or family delivering your meals, stocking your fridge or freezer with foods that you like well in advance of needing them and which can be easily cooked or heated to eat, or ordering meals from a service.

Emotional worries

Although your life experience may mean that you will deal with the mental and emotional challenges of cancer better than younger people might, you may still have many emotional concerns. These include:

  • Feeling all alone

If you are over 65, you may feel more alone than someone who’s younger. Maybe your family lives far away or you’ve moved to a brand new home. Perhaps you’ve lost your spouse, the family member you lean on or your closest friend. Try helping yourself by:

  • Joining a cancer support group where others know exactly what you’re going through
  • Asking your healthcare team for assistance in organising visiting nursing services
  • Talking with a counsellor if you feel anxious or depressed
  • Getting involved in hobby groups or your spiritual community
  • Dealing with your spiritual needs

Studies show that spiritual beliefs are important to many people with cancer and that spiritual care can play an important role when it comes to coping with cancer. Try to include spiritual beliefs in your treatment plan by:

  • Talking with your doctor about how your beliefs affect your decisions
  • Talking with your spiritual leader or a hospital chaplain
  • Asking your healthcare social worker to help you find a counsellor who shares your beliefs
  • Finding a support group that deals with spiritual issues
  • Dealing with financial concerns around your treatment

If you are worried about paying for treatment, discuss this with your doctor, social worker or another healthcare team member. It’s also important to learn what’s covered by your medical scheme and if they have special programmes – such as the Discovery Health Oncology Programme – which you can register for.

Also, Listen to our podcast on Cancer and your Financial wellbeing here.


The Discovery Health Medical Scheme is an independent non-profit entity governed by the Medical Schemes Act, and regulated by the Council for Medical Schemes. It is administered by a separate company, Discovery Health (Pty) Ltd, an authorised financial services provider.


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