Research backs up my personal experience regarding aging and cancer.
One of the hallmarks of my life with ongoing cancer treatment, following confirmation of metastatic breast cancer in January 2015, is the exponential list of health issues and their associated doctors.
I’ve got my primary care physician, my breast oncologist, my blood-thinner oncologist, my neurologist, my cardiologist, my urogynocologist and other specialists who I haven’t yet assigned permanently to my stable of experts.
Eight years ago, all I had was a primary care physician (PCP) who specialized in caring for my kids.
A few weeks ago, at my annual check-up, my PCP quickly entered referrals for additional specialist care. As she entered the reasons for each referral, telling me which specific doctors to ask for, I said, “I never thought I’d have so many problems or so many doctors.”
She stopped her typing and turned to me, saying “That is how it is once you have cancer” and looked at me sympathetically. She knows me well enough to know how much I dislike going to appointments, how much I would rather resolve or, better yet, prevent problems using techniques under my control.
Even now, my instinct is to turn to those five healthy-living standbys. Can I give myself more time to feel better? Have I been eating junk or am I dehydrated? Can I take it easy so I can heal? Have I been walking enough? Can I shed some of the stress in my life?
And yet I, like so many cancer patients I know, have a cascade of health issues that require more and more care, making the future look like an endless string of appointments, tests, worsening health, even when cancer is stable or in remission.
Cancer itself is an aging-related disease, but research has also found that treatments themselves can cause premature aging, which means other age-related diseases or complications can occur earlier. Knowing how and when premature aging occurs might mean we can use or develop better tools to reduce it. Just like icing heads, hands and feet can result in less hair loss and neuropathy, knowing if aging is happening faster could help guide decision-making and identify risk early.
My gut tells me that my body isn’t aging properly. I can see faster aging on the outside, with my skin and muscle tone. I question the toll of cancer treatment even as I feel gratitude for staying alive.
I’ve been intrigued by “Washington Post” and “Bloomberg Business Week” articles about anti-aging research highlighting what wealthy people are doing to try stay young.
I’d like to think that this research will be more urgently applied to people likely to die far too soon, who live with serious consequences of life-extending treatments or who have been harmed by environmental disasters. It is why I think being upfront about the long-term effects that many cancer patients experience from treatments is critical. Knowing what and why our bodies behave the way they do can lead to better care.
After all, a good life requires more than just not dying.