A presentation by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment brought mixed news about cancer to people living on the Western Slope.
The meeting at The Memorial Hospital centered around the second in a series of reports compiled by the department to study cancer throughout Colorado. The first report focused on the Eastern Plains area, and the third report will examine cancer statistics in the central counties.
"The good news is that cancer is on the decline faster in Colorado than in the rest of the nation," said Dr. Tim Byers, the chairman of the Colorado Cancer Prevention Coalition. "The bad news is cancer continues to take lives and to cause suffering."
The report, which looked at 22 Western Colorado counties, found that cancer incidence and mortality rates for people living in those counties were similar to the statewide statistics between 1996 and 1998.
However, incidence rates of all cancers combined for men living in the Northwest Colorado counties of Moffat, Grand, Jackson, Rio Blanco and
Routt during the period studied were lower than the state rate. Included were incidence rates for male colorectal cancer and prostate cancer which were statistically lower for the five counties than for the rest of the state.
"I'm really not sure why those numbers are lower in this area," Byers said. "Looking at the area, it seems that people are pretty active, so I'd have to guess that physical activity has something to do with it."
The study found that the overall incidence and mortality rates for all cancers combined for women residing in these Northwest Colorado counties was similar to the state rate although the female melanoma incidence rate for women living in this section of Colorado was statistically higher than the state rate.
Byers thought the outdoor lifestyle of the area may actually contribute to the increase of melanoma, as well.
Byers hopes the information will help people do a better job of preventing and treating cancer in the future. He stressed the importance of lifestyle changes that can reduce the cancer risk factors, and he also said that early detection is critical to improving the survival rate of cancer patients.
While the mortality rate from heart disease has been nearly cut in half over the past 50 years, cancer deaths have maintained a fairly stable rate. Byers said that improved treatments for heart disease are the primary reason for this, so he said prevention and early detection were even more critical in the case of cancer.
"About one-third of cancer deaths are due to nutrition," Byers said, "and about one-third are due to tobacco use." He added that 10 percent stem from a failure to detect the cancer early, five percent are related to genetic reasons and two percent from all other known factors, according to Byers.
"Because of the fear factor, we sometimes tend to want to attribute cancer to things like environment where we live, where we work, things like that," Byers said. "The truth is, only a small percentage of cancers can be statistically linked to those kinds of factors. The best way to reduce your risk is to reduce the use of tobacco, eat better and get some exercise," he said. "You don't have to run a marathon, but getting out to walk every day helps."
Byers also said that people in Western Colorado should use sun screen, since they seem to spend a lot of time outside.
Detection is the other part of the formula for survival. Byers said that women should receive regular pap exams and breast exams, especially after age 40, and men should receive regular exams to detect colorectal cancers.
While cancer incidences are on a slow decline, Byers is hopeful that the next 25 years will bring more dramatic successes.
"I'm actually hopeful that there are some magic bullets out there," he said. "And there's reason to be hopeful. There is some good research going on, and technology may offer some good opportunities."
Two more meetings will take place in Western Colorado, and the public is invited to attend. There is a meeting tonight from 6-7:30 in Montrose at Montrose Memorial Hospital. The third public meeting will be Nov. 1 in Grand Junction at a location not yet determined.