An IV chemotherapy bag hangs in the chemo wards at the North Carolina Cancer Hospital in Chapel Hill.
An IV chemotherapy bag hangs in the chemotherapy ward at the North Carolina Cancer Hospital in Chapel Hill. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

By Rose Hoban

An IV chemotherapy bag hangs in the treatment ward at the North Carolina Cancer Hospital in Chapel Hill. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

New numbers compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show deaths from cancer are dropping around the South, along with the rest of the United States.

For decades, cancer death rates climbed slowly until about 1990, when the trend started to turn around. Since that time, deaths from cancer have steadily decreased.

Ruth Petersen, who leads cancer prevention efforts for the Department of Health and Human Services said the decrease is the result of a complicated group effort.

“I think the public health and environmental experts who are working on reducing risk are winning, the medical community is winning and the primary care and oncology teams at the cancer hospitals are winning,” she said.

Petersen said reductions in tobacco use and reductions in exposure to second-hand smoke are starting to bear fruit.

There’s also reduced risk as a result of environmental radon in houses, she said.

Geography of deaths from all cancers in North Carolina, 2008-2013. Map courtesy: NC Center for Health Statistics.

“In areas in North Carolina where we know we have radon, the environmental folks are making headway on changing building codes so you don’t get radon exposure in your house,” Petersen said.

Radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, behind smoking. Researchers at the National Cancer Institute estimate 15,000 to 22,000 lung cancer deaths in the U.S. each year are related to radon.

Electronic medical records help out

“It’s wonderful that doctors are working hard to get screening and diagnostic exams done for their patients,” she said, noting that the ways that medical practice has changed supports reminding doctors to remind patients to get patients screened.

[pullquote_right]Like what you read on NC Health News? Help make it possible. Make a donation today. As little as $5/ month will help keep us going![/pullquote_right]For example, if a patient who is 50, or 60 comes into a doctor’s office who has never had a colonoscopy, the electronic medical records give the doctors an alert.

“The burden is on the computer system to remember, not the individual providers,” she said, noting that more providers are following evidence-based guidelines created by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

Cancer care has also improved across the state, made easier by patients who screened sooner to get treated sooner before cancers are too advanced.

“The cancer hospitals are the ones doing the last ditch efforts for saving those people and getting those people back into the community,” she said.

Age-Adjusted Death Rates* from Cancer by U.S. Census Region and Year, Data and image courtesy: CDC

Far to go

But the CDC data also show that Southern states also lag behind states in the West and Northeast in cancer mortality. At the beginning of the 1970s, rates were highest in the Northeast, but since the late 1990s, rates in the South and Midwest have been higher.

“In our statistics we show that 140 people a day are newly diagnosed with cancer in North Carolina, and 50 people lose their lives,” Petersen said.

She said part of that persistent lagging behind other states is due to some “hot spots” of disease in the state, which tend to also happen to be in areas of high poverty: in the east, in border counties, and in the far west.

She said one of the goals of the recent North Carolina Cancer Plan is to get into counties where there are pockets of cancer and get more people screened earlier.

“That will require boots on the ground with people who know those populations and areas,” including local health departments, community activists and local health providers, Petersen said. “It has to be concerted effort, with a commitment made to find those individuals who are at risk.”

She said the American Cancer Society has made a pledge to get 80 percent of the people who need screening for colorectal cancer screened for the disease by 2018.

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Cancer screening, prevention, treatment and support resources in N.C.

American Cancer Society – Need information about cancer prevention, screening or cancer treatment?
Shop Tobacco Free – Want to support stores and companies that have gone tobacco free? The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids has a new tool to help you do it.

NC Quitline – Want help quitting smoking?

ClinicalTrials.Gov Research Information – Have cancer? You can participate in a clinical trial.


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