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Cancer is top health concern among Kentuckians

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Earlier this year, The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky asked more than 1,600 Kentuckians a simple question: What do you think is the most pressing healthcare issue for our citizens? The answer given most often was a word no one wants to hear: Cancer.

There’s good reason why it’s the top health concern, because in the Commonwealth it’s the leading cause of death among women and a close second behind heart disease in men.  Unfortunately, it’s also more prevalent here than in other states.

A little more than two decades ago, the state re-dedicated its efforts to see what we could do to turn the tide, and the result has been ground-breaking research in our labs, more preventive measures in our communities and access to better care in our hospitals and doctor’s offices.

In 1990, for example, the General Assembly set aside money for breast cancer screenings – more than 258,000 mammograms have been provided at local health departments since then – and it also authorized the Kentucky Cancer Registry to be the state’s official clearing house on the disease.   In 2000, legislators called for the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville to work together on lung cancer research over the next 20 years, focusing our best minds on a type of cancer that causes 50 percent more deaths here than the national average.

In 2008, the legislature established a colon cancer screening program, with a focus on those without insurance, and this past February, First Lady Jane Beshear and many others encouraged more Kentuckians to donate to breast cancer research and prevention efforts by setting aside a small portion of their income tax refund. More than $268,000 have been donated this way over the last six years.

Earlier this year, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services released their latest annual reports on breast and colorectal cancers, and there were some positive signs in both areas.

It’s projected that one in eight American women will develop breast cancer within their lifetime. Here in Kentucky, we were below the national average in the percentage of new cases between 2003 and 2007, and in the middle when comparing mortality rates among the states.

The news is not as good for our colorectal cancer rate, which is the second-worst in the country. This was not always that way; in fact, during the mid-1970s, we were above the national average. That began to change in the mid-1980s, however, and over the next two decades the gap widened, even as the number of cases declined significantly both here and across the country.

About 2,500 Kentuckians are diagnosed with colorectal cancer annually, and it affects men and women almost equally. Most cases involve those over the age of 50, but many are below that age as well.

Like most cancers, early detection is key. Indeed, if everyone had proper check-ups, catching potential problems in their early stages, we could cut the mortality rate for colorectal cancer by as much as 90 percent.

Many Kentuckians are apparently taking that to heart, because the number of colonoscopies and the related sigmoidoscopies nearly doubled between 2001 and 2008. In 2009, there were 78,000 colonoscopies performed in our hospitals, up from less than 52,000 just two years earlier.

On the research side, we’re seeing some literally ground-breaking work. U of L researchers, for example, played a leading role in the world’s first 100 percent effective cancer vaccine, which was designed to reduce future cases of cervical cancer.

Last month, meanwhile, Kentucky scientists had an experiment on the space shuttle Endeavor to see how zero gravity affects a deadly form of brain cancer; a similar experiment will fly this summer on Atlantis, NASA’s last shuttle mission.

Last fall, the Appalachia Community Cancer Network – which is based at UK – was awarded $6.5 million to try to fight obesity through outreach to churches, which are recognized for the positive impact they can have on our health; altogether, 20 churches throughout five states will be targeted, and any success will be used in other areas well. Obesity may not be thought of as a precursor to cancer, but the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office and the American Cancer Society say it can be a factor in colon, gall bladder, pancreas and prostate cancers.

In many ways, lowering cancer rates in Kentucky is entirely in our hands. With a greater focus on prevention and early screenings, we can see our numbers continue to improve and hopefully see our rankings against other states rise.  That’s certainly our goal.

Rick Rand, D-Bedford, represents the 47th House District in the Kentucky General Assembly. He may be reached by writing to Room 351C, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601, or leave a message at (800) 372-7181 – TTY (800) 896-0305.