Cancer not dying in the Delta

GREENWOOD — Although a new study applauds falling rates of cancer death nationally, a closer look reveals more people are dying from the disease in a majority of counties in the Mississippi Delta.

The study found that deaths from cancer fell 1.6 percent per year across the nation from 2001 to 2006.

In Mississippi, the decline was 1.1 percent per year.

But the rate of cancer deaths is increasing in more than two-thirds of the 18 counties that make up the Delta.

“We do have a high rate of cancer incidence in the Delta,” Freddie White-Johnson, president of the Fannie Lou Hamer Cancer Foundation, said. “A lot of it is due to a lack of resources and education.”

Barbara Young, 55, a three-time survivor of cancer from Holmes County, is doing her part to change the statistics.

She volunteers at local churches, spreading her story of cancer survival and promoting techniques for increasing measures of prevention.

Young said that if she had not found the resources of the Fannie Lou Hamer Cancer Foundation and the Deep South Network for Cancer Control, she may not be alive today.

“They came to where I live,” Young said. “Here in the rural part of Mississippi, there is not enough information about cancer available.”

Young offered advice to people who have not thought about the possibility of getting cancer themselves.

“Please, please, please get checked by your doctor,” she said. “Even if you don’t think you have cancer, it could happen to you.”

Leflore County was one of only three Delta counties that actually saw a decrease in cancer-related deaths. Leflore’s rate has dropped, on average 1.1 percent per year.

The study, published Dec. 7 in the medical journal Cancer, used data collected from 2001-2006 to analyze trends of cancer deaths and new cancer diagnoses. Data for the study was obtained from the National Cancer Institute.

According to the Department of Health, Mississippi ranked fourth in cancer mortality in 2005.

Nationally, the drop in cancer death and diagnosis rate is attributed to improvements in treatment of three of the most common cancers. Rates of lung, prostate and colorectal cancer in men, along with breast and colorectal cancer in women, have all declined significantly nationwide.

In the Delta, though, results in battling those three key cancers have been mixed.

Leflore County went against the national trend and reported increasing rates of death from colorectal cancer. About half of the Mississippi counties reported decreasing colorectal cancer deaths.

Deaths from lung cancer did not show decreasing trends in any of the Delta counties. Leflore County reported a stable rate of deaths from lung cancer but was still higher than the national average.

There was not sufficient data to reliably calculate most Mississippi counties occurrences of prostate cancer, but the entire state is on a trend toward fewer annual deaths as a result of prostate cancer.

According to the Mississippi Department of Health, most cancers are preventable and one-third of cancer deaths are linked to lifestyle factors such as smoking and poor nutrition habits.

Smoking, the leading cause of preventable death, has not decreased across the United States in the past five years, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control.

Mississippi was once considered a national leader in suppressing youth smoking rates thanks to tobacco settlement money.

However, the state had fallen to 18th nationally in funding provided for programs aimed at helping people stop smoking and preventing new smokers from starting.

The current $11.7 million per year allocated to prevention funding is less than 30 percent of of the more than $39 million recommended by the CDC.

In contrast, the tobacco industry will spend $185.5 million per year on advertisement in Mississippi for tobacco products, according to a news release from the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

That’s 16 times more than the state will spend promoting prevention.

Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said that the cost of prevention shouldn’t overshadow the health consequences.

“It is disappointing that Mississippi continues to fall short when it comes to protecting kids from tobacco and has yet to fully restore funding for its tobacco prevention program,” Myers said “Even in these difficult budget times, tobacco prevention is a smart investment for Mississippi that reduces smoking, saves lives and saves money by reducing tobacco-related health care costs.”

White-Johnson said that though many don’t realize the two are connected, obesity is also a major risk factor for cancer.

“Obesity is very high in Mississippi,” White-Johnson said. “That leads to higher rates of cancer. People need to remember to exercise and eat healthier. Walking about 30 minutes a few times a week can significantly reduce the chance of cancer.”

In the Delta counties, the average rate of adult obesity is about 38 percent. A county-by-county analysis found that three of the five most obese counties in the nation were in the Delta — Jefferson, Humphreys and Holmes.

Dr. Arnold Smith, a Greenwood cancer specialist, said one of the keys to his own patients’ improving health is antioxidants.

Antioxidants are found naturally in certain foods, but Dr. Smith said he recommends supplementing with many times more than the daily requirement of several nutrients.

“The question is do you want natural levels, or do you want optimal levels of nutrition,” Smith said.

A study recently published in Preventing Chronic Disease reported 52 percent of people living in the Delta were likely or highly likely to the lack the ability to obtain, process and understand basic nutrition information.

“A lot of people don’t realize the importance of being educated about health,” White-Johnson said. “We provide free education programs. Some people just don’t know they exist.

“When I ask people why they aren’t screened early, the most common excuse is that they wouldn’t get paid for that day off, or they don’t have the money for it,” White-Johnson said.

However, many early detection and prevention programs are offered for free. She said that lack of transportation, facilities, insurance and other factors also play a role in the Delta’s high rate of cancer.

Young said that since she has been visiting area churches and speaking about cancer, she too sees that financial concerns drive many personal health decisions.

“Some of these young mothers are afraid to go get checked because they are afraid of losing their jobs,” Young said. “They worry about what that means for their children.”

Taylor Kuykendall/Greenwood Commonwealth