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Has Cancer Treatment Accelerated the Aging Process for You?

Has cancer treatment accelerated the aging process for you? Talk about a loaded question, right? I don’t know about you, but I can say, without a doubt, cancer treatment accelerated the aging process for me. Still, there is debate about this, too.

Exactly how much can be attributed to cancer treatment fallout and how much can be attributed to natural aging?

So why am I bringing this topic up now?

Because February is my birthday month. And no, I’m not going to share my age because I don’t generally do that. Of course, some of you know how old I am (pretty old) and if you’ve read my memoir, you’ve done the math. But still, I like to keep some things a mystery.

But let me just say, I am thrilled to still be here and able to celebrate yet another birthday. 

This year’s birthday also meant it was time to renew my driver’s licence. When my new license arrived in the mail recently, I took one look at my new photo and thought, oh yeah, you’ve aged, Nancy. And btw, that number you plug in for your weight on your licence, do you declare your real weight? Just wondering…

Recently, I read a study shared by @BCSMchat co-moderator, Dr. Attai, that specifically addressed this topic of aging acceleration being a direct result of cancer treatment. You can read Dr. Attai’s blog post about it here. You can read study details recently published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

As far as I’m concerned, researchers could just ask almost any cancer patient, but yes, we need studies about this stuff, too. Validation matters.

This particular study measured and compared inflammatory cytokines (proteins important in cellular signaling regarding inflammation and pain) and comorbidity developments (other medical problems) among breast cancer survivors and a non-cancer control group. Inflammation is associated with aging-related physical decrements and increased disability, hence this study. In short, inflammation is a big deal.

At the beginning of the study, both groups had similar baselines of the above mentioned inflammatory markers, but at the end of the 18-month study, the breast cancer survivor group had higher levels of inflammatory cytokines than the control group, along with correlating higher levels of comorbidity.

Basically, this suggests that higher levels of inflammation likely result from cancer treatment and higher levels of inflammation result in increased comorbidities. One can conclude that the aging process is indeed accelerated by cancer treatment. In addition and unfortunately, this “pile on” of medical issues might also indicate premature mortality for some cancer survivors.

So again, it’s a big deal.

The study went on to say these things keep compounding over time and more followup is needed to further study them, as well as the biology specific to these effects. In other words, the worst might be yet to come for an individual patient since the issues can keep building up over time, sort of a snowball effect.

I don’t need convincing that cancer accelerates the aging process. Experts don’t all agree on this cause and effect idea, but it seems a correlation is indeed supported by this study.

It’s important to note, this particular study focused on inflammation driven issues, but there are other conditions that might arise down the road following cancer treatment as well, such as: cardiac or other organ toxicity, depression, neuropathy and decreased cognitive and physical functioning, to name a few.

This study makes it clearer (again) why oncologists (and others) these days are stressing more than ever the importance of exercise during cancer treatment and beyond. Exercise helps with a lot of things, including reducing inflammation.

Most of us fully realize the need for and benefit of exercise. I try to fit in some exercise most days. I also understand how hard it is for some and why condescending “blame the patient” articles and advisement are not helpful.

The difficulty sometimes is in the implementation.

Most survivors want to, try to and do some sort of exercise, but at the same time, many are plagued with considerable pain, fatigue and countless other issues that make exercise hard to do or to continue doing. And of course, there’s the normal life stuff to do; work, raising a family, household chores – just tending to all that stuff that needs doing in all our lives. These things get in the way for everyone, but for some cancer patients it can seem like too much to tackle because it is.

This is why it’s not always so easy to just do it.

Besides weight gain, I now have thin hair (which I hate – hair rant coming soon), neuropathy, joint pain, bone loss, sleep issues, hot flashes, lowered libido, fatigue, and a few other issues that shall remain unmentioned here.

And yes, I realize some of these can be and often are attributed to normal aging, but I know my body. I know exactly when these issues emerged or drastically worsened.

Bingo – right after cancer and cancer treatment rudely intruded into my life.

And one more thing, me “complaining” about these issues does not mean I am not grateful to be alive. My treatment saved me. I am still NED. I am grateful, but this other stuff matters, too. And yes, sometimes it pisses me off.

So does cancer treatment accelerate the aging process?

As far as I’m concerned, no study needed.

Without a doubt, it did for me.

What about for you?

If applicable, do you feel cancer accelerated the aging process for you?

If so, in what ways specifically?

If you’re a patient or a health care professional and you agree cancer treatment accelerates aging, what if anything, can we do about it? Ideas welcome.

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Featured image by Tony Hall via Flickr/Creative Commons

Has Cancer Treatment Accelerated the Aging Process for You? #cancer #breastcancer #chemotherapy #radiation #mastectomy #cancersucks

Not just another February, not just another birthday
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Linda

Wednesday 3rd of February 2021

Aging - yes. I looked okay even a year after treatment for MBC. Then it all crashed with hair loss, dry skin (it used to be oily), neuropathy in my feet, and occasional hip pain which must be arthritis since the scans did not indicate cancer there. some dark days I wonder (out loud because I'm quite verbal and extraverted) if it's all worth it. I want to live as long as possible, but I hate becoming the old, old lady when my mind is young. The often quoted saying "Aging isn't for sissies" is so true, but cancer forces aging.

Nancy

Wednesday 3rd of February 2021

Linda, Pretty sure most of us have those dark days. But a MBC diagnosis likely brings more of them. I'm sorry you have hip pain. And neuropathy is no fun either. You have a lot to deal with, that's for sure. Normal aging is not a piece of cake and throw in cancer, and well, you know. Gotta keep on keepin' on I guess. Thank you for commenting.

Kathleen N Mckellips

Wednesday 26th of February 2020

It's been nearly 5 yrs since my lumpectomy for ductile sarcoma on my right breast. I only had radiation and feel so much for those who have had to do Chemo as well. I am taking Letrozole and it's been very difficult feeling like I'm 80 yrs old from sun up to sun down. I was very pretty for 59 yrs old. When I see my reflection or when a photo is taken of me I am wondering if this is a long nightmare for which I will never awaken? I've gained 50+ pounds and every attempt to change my eating habits soon go south. I have never been a sweets person but I cant get enough! My skin is so dry and wrinkly. I do not recognize my hand and feet not to mention everything else. I've never been so unhealthy. My radiology oncologist strongly advised me to go on a vegan "lifestyle". I'm sorry for all of you who have struggled from estrogen blockers. I guess it's better than the alternative but it still hurts inwardly and outwardly.

Temple

Tuesday 11th of February 2020

I am two months post active treatment for stage 2 b HR/ER+ HER2 - breast cancer right breast. Lumpectomy, 4 weeks radiation and I’m still new to Arimidex. I am 58. My worst fears about AI were the long list of debilitating side effects and it made me positively terrified and miserable to the point of crazy. The idea of losing my retirement dreams and capabilities made me feel powerful rage and despair. I altered our home renovations to accommodate my anticipation loss of mobility, and cried a lot during radiation.

But what I want to say is that I would have benefited from hearing from women doing ok on Arimidex. I certainly realise perhaps there is less impetus to comment when things are okay. So I make these comments to maybe help a woman about to start anastrozole deal with the kind of anxiety I felt : I am 10 weeks in and have no side major effects I can identify. I don’t know if my current afternoon fatigue is post radiation fatigue or from the Arimidex, and I have some brain fog. I use my phone calender to set reminders for the slightest thing as I don’t trust myself. I think it’s getting better though. But it’s early days- I don’t have any joint or muscle pains or issues so far but will have to face density risk in the long run. But I was at the highest anxiety level about commencing Arimidex but have managed well so far. I hate that medicos dismiss women’s voices about the impacts it is obviously having. They must work on these side effects. I feel a solidarity with everyone here as I was crazy with fear. But then it was so unexpectedly okay once I started. Maybe a woman somewhere will feel less scared hearing from the woman who has at least started off okay on Arimidex. I hope things stay okay for me or by mid year I’ll be a wreck I do feel aged by cancer by the fatigue and stress ! but not otherwise visibly in my skin or hair? I wish everyone here the best xxx

Ilene

Monday 10th of February 2020

Photographic evidence would suggesgt that after five years of undergoing treatments, the one that has caused the most biological aging is Taxol by far and away. The steroids did not make matters much better either. Some days I do feel like I am 80 - getting out of bed and stepping down onto my sore feet, using my knees to walk to the bathroom or to make a coffee in the kitchen, feels like miles not rooms away. However, after all the obviousness of the reports (at least to me although I agree data driven factual information to back up how we feel gives us less of the feeling of being hypochondriacs and whining about age, when damn it, we should be HAPPY to be alive, right?) There’s a positive note to aging. And it’s not one that a report can easily underscore with data and charts. Wisdom comes with age. The wisdom that I had at 49 was fully eclipsed this year in my accelerated soon to be 55 biological years old brain. I forget more - chemo brain might parallel senior moments. Yet I also remember more - to be kinder, to myself and to others. To remember that love is what counts, nothing more and nothing less, in the gift of this body with which I carry my soul on this current journey. I know what I don’t know and ask a lot more than I espouse. I look back at my anger in the blog posts of 2016 and 17, and the calmer, more engaged posts of 2019 and the beginnning of 2020. THey’re less about me and my woes. More about the questions of life made apparent to me as time with a terminal disease I suppose will do to us... I’ve realized the gifts of silence - now as I sit in my bath at 3 am and as I meditate two to three times a day. I realized that there’s some things I don’t want to change but change they must. That includes the woman in the mirror.

I recall a conversation with a neighbor complaining about not wanting to look old. About how she’d get plastic surgery to prevent the aging process from showing. Mind you, she didn’t look old. But no one seems to age as they used to with the median age of mortality at a record 79. To be 80 years old I know is a pipe dream and even coming near 60 would be wonderful to me. I’d love to see the progression of my age with grace and with a passion for the many tomorrows I hope to find even as I slouch towards the Bethlehem of my kitchen for a steaming hot cup of Kona with cream. I love the taste. I remember my grandmother scolding my mother when I was around 7 or 8 for allowing me a cup of coffee. Grandma said it would stunt my growth. HA! She was a staggering 5’2” and I peaked at 6 feet tall. My mom would laugh at her and say, ‘Ma, I guess you were right! Look how stunted she’s become!” The wisdom of ages sometimes gets it wrong. I’d love to see the grandchildren my stepsons bring over to us to meet and to be a grandmother - and to have learned that love was the reason for the visit - not anything more. And I hope craig gets the joy of seeing his first grandchild with me but chances are they will not know me. Perhaps they’ll know of me. Perhaps the boys can take a lesson more from their other mother’s disease and remember me when it comes time to recall their lives stories to their kids. So yes, my physical self - shrank 1/4 of an inch because of cancer that spread to my bones and accelerated osteoporosis caused my spine to have stress fractures on my L7 and C5. Excruciating pain and nothing to do but wait I hope and take care of myself so I don’t wind up with titanium in my spine. Not that I won’t be grateful for standing up and the advances of medical oncology to help me get there. I love your post and it’s a real topic for us. One that makeup cant cover up. Love you so much, Nancy. You’re not old to me. You’re just Nancy the wonderful and wickedly intelligent woman I’ve come to know.

Nancy

Monday 10th of February 2020

Ilene, Thank you for your remarkable insights. Lots of wisdom in them! And I so appreciate your kind words. Thank you. xx

Liz Johnson

Wednesday 5th of February 2020

Wow! Looking at all of these comments, you've certainly hit a nerve. I will say, yes, cancer treatment has had a diminishing effect on my body, whether it's called aging or just side effects. My blood pressure is starting to elevate which means my arteries are likely hardening from chemo. At times, my skin looks more wrinkled, my eyes more puffy. Still, I find that exercise, drinking lots of water, upping protein intake in times of fatigue all counteract those effects. I am truly amazed at how resilient my body can be and I tend to focus on that more than the signs of deterioration. Another great post Nancy!

Nancy

Thursday 6th of February 2020

Liz, It is pretty amazing how resilient the human body is when you think about the rigors of treatment and in your case, ongoing treatment. Your suggestions about exercise, drinking lots of water and upping protein are good ones for all of us. Thank you for sharing.

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