Keep Parents Cancer-Free

MD Anderson News Release 06-07-10

Family members can help reduce an aging relative’s risk of cancer by encouraging healthy lifestyle changes, according to experts at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.  

“Thanks to modern medicine, more people are living longer,” said Therese B. Bevers, M.D., medical director of MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center. “But a longer life doesn’t always equal a healthier one.” 

About 77 percent of people diagnosed with cancer are 55 or older, according to the American Cancer Society.

Bevers suggests the following lifestyle changes that can benefit the health of senior family members.

1. Encourage exercise

“Daily exercise plays a major role in preserving a person’s health,” Bevers said.

Retired seniors often lead sedentary lives. Try these tips to get them moving.

Educate seniors about the benefits of exercise. Increasing physical activity can lower a person’s chances for many cancers, including breast, endometrial, prostate, colorectal and lung cancers.

The American Institute for Cancer Research suggests getting at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as walking, every day. Jumpstart increased activity by going for a brisk walk together during your next visit.

Encourage seniors to do activities they enjoy and that will keep them active. Gardening, golfing, playing tennis and swimming are all great choices. “Encourage aging relatives to talk to their doctor about what types of activity they should do,” Bevers said.

2. Encourage healthy food choices

Many seniors, especially those living alone, don’t cook much.  

“A poor diet may keep seniors from getting the nutrients they need to maintain a healthy body and lower their risk of lung, mouth, esophageal, stomach and colon cancers,” Bevers said.

Here are some tips to make sure aging relatives are eating nutritious meals daily.

Learn about healthy diets for adults older than age 50. Share information on how many calories they should be getting daily and the types of foods they should be eating.           

Share leftovers. Make enough healthy food at home so that you have extra to package and freeze. Then, when you visit, take those leftovers with you.  

3. Discourage smoking and secondhand smoke

“Quitting smoking is the most important thing anyone can do to improve their health,” Bevers said.

It’s never too late to quit. It reduces the risks for cancer and other diseases, such as heart and lung disease. And avoiding secondhand smoke can greatly improve one’s health.

Encourage an aging relative to get help by calling one of these free quit smoking lines:

  • American Cancer Society: 1-800-QUIT-NOW
  • National Cancer Institute: 1-877-44U-QUIT

4. Reduce financial stress

Many seniors experience financial stress due to money management issues. Psychological stress can affect the immune system, the body’s defense against infection and disease including cancer.

Here’s how to help aging relatives cope with financial stress:

Offer advice. Work with them to set a budget and payment system for bills. Suggest working with the bank to set up automatic bill payment to relieve some of the financial responsibility.

Look into the “representative payee” alternative. If they receive income from Social Security, the Social Security Administration can appoint a representative payee to receive the monthly checks and use the money to pay for living expenses.

5. Encourage regular check-ups and screening exams

Cancer screening exams help find cancer at its earliest stage, when the chances for curing the disease are greatest.

Learn what screening exams aging relatives should be getting and make sure they schedule their appointments on time.

“It’s important to take an active role in keeping your senior family members healthy,” Bevers said.

For more information on family health, visit