Cancer Survivors Become Bold Advocates

Sociologists find older cancer survivors advise current patients to take active role in their care. Cancer survivors offer bold advice to other cancer patients—even if they took a more passive approach during their own treatment, according to sociologists at Case Western Reserve University.

older cancer survivors

Eva Kahana, Robson Professor of Sociology and director of the Elderly Care Research Center at Case Western Reserve, reported the results of interviews with 100 cancer survivors, who are part of a decades-long study of 1,107 elderly adults living in a retirement community in Florida.

Researchers were surprised to find that cancer survivors became advocates for others while they had not been for themselves. The survivors encouraged their peers with cancer to take a more active role in their treatment by getting second opinions, checking their doctor’s credentials, keeping a positive attitude, joining support groups and learning more about treatment options before taking the doctor's advice at face value, says Kahana.

However, very few of the survivors interviewed reported practicing those same active behaviors during their own treatment and coped by relying on physicians and family members, according to the study, which was published in JAGS, the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The study's participants reported in their interviews that during their cancer experience they weren't worried, continued regular routines, had faith in their healthcare providers and followed instructions.

The findings suggest that the illness experience may spark a transition from passive to a more active—or even activist—orientation for survivors, overturning the notion that elderly patients are disinterested and disempowered health consumers, according to Kahana.

She thinks that offering the advice and reflecting on the cancer experience can be helpful when these individuals face new chronic illnesses.

For nearly 20 years, the study's research team gathered information from this Florida retirement community to find out what older people do to age successfully and weather chronic illnesses and frailties in their later years.

In the study's 17th year, cancer survivors were given an in—depth interview about their cancer experience. The participants were of an average age of 79, married (62 percent) and were mostly women (62 percent). The predominant cancers were breast and prostate.

The findings were reported in the article "Toward Advocacy in Cancer Care for Older Adults: Survivors Have Cautious Personal Actions but Bold Advice for Others." The paper’s co-authors are Jessica Kelley-Moore, Scott A. Adams, Rachel Hammel, Diana Kulle, Jane A. Brown and Cathie King from the Case Western Reserve University department of sociology and Boaz Kahana from the department of psychology at Cleveland State University.