Incidences of the five most common forms of cancer are lower in Montgomery County than they are in the rest of the state and throughout the United States.
According to Dr. Chunfu Liu, chief epidemiologist for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, “Montgomery County rates are consistently lower” in cancers of the lung, colon and rectum, breast, prostate and skin, he said, adding, “Cancer is the leading cause of mortality in Montgomery County,” accounting for 24 percent of deaths.
There are more than 100 types of cancers, he told those attending a March 28 public conversation on cancer in the community at the Silver Spring Civic Building, but he only focused on cancers with the highest mortality rates.
Liu did not state a reason for the County’s lower rates, explaining that there are too many risk factors to be able to come up with a specific reason. Smoking, obesity, excessive drinking, an unhealthy diet and a lack of activity increase a person’s chances of receiving a diagnosis of cancer, said Liu.
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A person’s genetic makeup is another factor. Liu said family genes account for a 5 to 10 percent risk factor, with the environment accounting for the other 90 to 95 percent. Included in the environmental risk factors are use of tobacco, which raises a person’s chances of getting cancer by 20 to 24 percent, and diet, which increases it by 30 to 35 percent, he said.
A person’s occupation also could be a risk factor, especially if a job puts a worker near radioactive materials, he said.
Occupational hazards are what brought Terry Beahm of Takoma Park to the meeting. Of the other nine people she worked with at a dental office, “I am the only one who is cancer-free,” she said.
“People all around me are dying and getting sick from secondary radiation at dental offices,” she said.
The cause of a cancer “is difficult to prove,” Liu said, especially because many cancers don’t start producing symptoms for many years, sometimes decades.
Dr. Clifford Mitchell, director of the Environmental Health Bureau of the Maryland Department of Health, said a major reason it seems like more people are dying from cancer now is, because “people are now living longer and as they live longer, cancer becomes more frequent.”
Many in the audience live in the White Oak section of Silver Spring and were trying to determine if they lived in a cancer cluster as so many of their family and neighbors have died from various forms of cancer, especially brain cancer.
Determining whether an area is a cancer cluster does not mean there are a large number of cancer patients living there, Mitchell said.
If cancer diagnoses found in an area are not normal, (for instance, if many young people have a type of cancer normally found in adults), then it would be considered a cancer cluster, he said.
The third member of the panel, Dr. Brandi Page, assistant professor of Radiation Oncology and Molecular Sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said another factor to consider is which cancer came first. Some people have brain cancer first while others have cancers that then spread to the brain.
All three panelists stressed the best ways to avoid cancer are to reduce risk factors, eat a healthy diet, exercise and go to the doctor for regular cancer screenings.