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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 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.

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 license. 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 license, 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 follow-up 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?

Do you (if applicable) feel cancer accelerated the aging process for you?

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

Temple

Friday 4th of February 2022

Hi from Australia! I’m 21/2 years on from stage 2 with lumpectomy and radiation plus anastrazole. Even without the horrors of chemo I only need to look at the selfies on my phone to see the difference. And 2 years before diagnosis I see no big difference like I do 2 years on now. - I feel more saggy and wrinkled, more wear and tear that I don’t think would have happened so quickly without BC. - I forget that I absolutely did not used to have creaky ankles at all, but now walk funny for a minute when I stand up and feel elderly for doing so. My fingers have joint pain. - I did not have pain from my breast to my underarm that makes me hesitant to lift things now. - dry skin and dry everything. Maintaining a hydration regimen that is annoying but the dry hair and skin (feet and elbows esp) is new and relentless. - exhaustion and anxious about my energy levels when asked to go on an outing. Wishing I didn’t get invited to things like an old hermit and definitely not my old party girl self - needing a nap all the time I’m living as if I am decades older but now trying to resist and up the exercise too. But the bone density risk is my biggest fear as I now have osteopenia. I was diagnosed just as we were to commence major home renovations. Cancer and renovation is not a good combination but it did allow me to plan more diligently for ageing: Ensuring smooth levels, no trip hazards, wide doorless shower, and I chose flooring that is more gently- polished concrete is very fashionable but I chose soft engineered oak. No rugs. Good lighting. Raised power points.

We bought a new remote controlled adjustable bed that makes it less painful to change the bed linen and choose bed height and angle. They don’t look like hospital beds either. Just a discrete remote.

It was a coincidence but it gave me new perspective to as to protecting myself and planning to minimise slips and trips.

Only we know how it feels and nobody will acknowledge it- it’s impolite to say “wow you’ve aged” to someone! I feel such grief about my the loss of old self but can’t dwell on it too often. I miss me.

Nancy

Saturday 5th of February 2022

Temple, I hear you. On all of it. And good for you for going ahead with those renovations and changes with your future in mind. And yes, we do grieve for our old selves. We are human, after all. Thank you for reading and taking time to comment too.

Barb Shilowich

Wednesday 2nd of February 2022

Thank you, Nancy, as always. I have been following your blog for almost 6 years. It is not only enlightening but it makes me feel not so alone.

It will be six years on March 30 that I will have had my bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction, followed by four rounds of TC chemo at 80% ( they had to reduce my chemo after the first round because I wound up in the hospital with almost no white blood cells) , and am currently five and a half years on exemestane. The surgery was a piece of cake compared to the chemo and now the drug therapy, which continues to plague me. In January 2021, my oncologist did the breast cancer index on me to see if I would benefit from staying on the drug for another five years. The test showed that I am still at high risk for return of cancer and so the death sentence of staying on an aromatase inhibitor for another five years has been issued to me. I was originally stage 1B but my cancer cells were a grade 3 and my Oncotype score was a 31, which is why I have had the treatment I have had and continue to have.

So here’s my list of continuing health issues, and yes! They certainly have aged me and I largely attribute them to the Exemestane. First, every bone muscle and joint in my body aches continually. I have had trigger finger surgery, and severe pain in my shoulders and neck and hands and now tendinitis in my foot since September, which prevents me from doing my daily walking routine, which was my regular exercise. Let’s not even talk about the weight gain because it is so discouraging. My hair has thinned and dried to the point that no matter how I style it, I look like a witch. And my skin is quickly shriveling up and drying out all over. I have continual night sweats, no libido, high cholesterol that I never had before, burning mouth syndrome, and extreme fatigue. I have no energy and I used to be the energizer bunny. I am lucky if I get 3 to 4 hours of sleep a night, no matter how hard I try, and often have to take a nap during the day just to get through. Simply put, I am utterly exhausted. My oncologist took me off the drug for a month and it really didn’t help. But she feels I need to be on this drug at least another five years because the risk of my return of cancer is so great. I also feel like my vision has been affected. I was in good health before my cancer diagnosis and felt young every day - that was at 64 years old. I am close to turning 69 and I now feel like I am over 100, and I still worry every day about the cancer coming back, no matter how hard I try to not think about it. I am not depressed but I do sometimes just still feel overwhelmed at the thought of having had cancer and everything I am still dealing with. On top of the side effects from the drug, I have throughout the last six years experienced what they call iron chest from the surgery and reconstruction and lately I have felt like there are stitches and pulling inside of me with constant itching. I am sure this is a combination of the surgery and the drug side effects .

I am sure that most of you feel the way I do - we don’t want to complain but sometimes it is good to have a place to vent, and to that end, I thank you, Nancy! I do participate in a cancer survivor group that I have been doing for the last six years, and it has greatly helped. But sometimes I think my friends and family think that I am fine and they have no idea what I am still going through. I think that’s one of the hardest things to cope with. The other thing that I find difficult is that when people learn you have had cancer, they still don’t know how to react, even though this disease is so pervasive everywhere. Every day I wake up and I am thankful that I am still alive and relatively healthy but I wish I could be pain-free. What I wouldn’t give to return to my state of health prior to cancer!Thx for listening!

Nancy

Thursday 3rd of February 2022

Barb, Oh gosh, I'm sorry you're dealing with so many AI side effects. I hope your doctor has been at least listening (validation matters so much) and trying to offer tips to help manage them. Many of us do relate, so no, you're not alone. We are here to listen any time. Thank you for sharing and for the kind words too.

Linda C Boberg

Wednesday 2nd of February 2022

Definitely sped things up. I was hanging in there until MBC treatment which is harsh. I lost half my hair, then lost any ability to work with it. And face it, we are all a bit vain when it comes to our looks.

Nancy

Thursday 3rd of February 2022

Linda, Not sure we're vain, just human. And women humans at that. And yeah, I hear you.

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.

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