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Cancer Health Center

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Next Decade to See Boom in Older Cancer Survivors

New Challenges for Health System as 42% Increase Expected by 2020
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Oct. 6, 2011 -- The number of older Americans living with cancer or who are long-term survivors of the disease will rise dramatically over the next decade, a new analysis shows.

By 2020, more than 11 million cancer survivors will be 65 years old or older, representing a 42% increase in just 10 years, according to projections from the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

Largely because older cancer patients and survivors tend to have other health problems, the challenges of caring for them will increase with their numbers, says Julia H. Rowland, PhD, who directs the NCI's Office of Cancer Survivorship.

In a study published in the October issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, Rowland and colleagues characterized older cancer survivors as "overlooked, understudied, underserved, and vulnerable."

"We will see a wave of older adults with cancer or with a history of cancer as baby boomers grow older," she tells WebMD. "The good news is that cancer is no longer a death sentence. It is a disease that can be cured and people often live for many decades after treatment. But we have a lot to do to prepare for the unique challenges that older cancer patients and survivors present."

A Patient's Perspective

Oncology nurse Lillie Shockney, RN, knows all too well the challenges facing the health care system and older cancer patients and long-term survivors.

A two-time breast cancer survivor, Shockney directs the Johns Hopkins Breast Center and is a long-time advocate for patients with the disease.

Her first breast cancer was diagnosed 19 years ago when she was in her mid-30s. She was treated for a second, unrelated cancer in her other breast two and a half years later.

"I understand the issue from both sides. I have been living and breathing it for many years," Shockney tells WebMD.

She says one big concern is that there will be a major shortage of oncologists in years to come as medical students choose more lucrative specialties.

By one estimate, there will be a need for about 3,800 more oncologists in the U.S. than will be practicing within a decade.

"We will have a lot more people to take care of, with far fewer oncologists to take care of them," she says.

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