Each year, 25,000 Kentuckians – nearly 70 a day – are given the one diagnosis nobody ever wants to hear from their doctor: Cancer.
If there is a silver lining surrounding this sizeable cloud, it is that we are seeing true progress in making sure this word is said much less often. Nationally, deaths are down a fifth from their peak in 1991, and most types of cancers – but not all – are in decline.
While Kentucky has benefited from this trend, it still unfortunately lags behind most other states. Only one other has a higher percentage of cases, and none lose more loved ones on average than we do. What’s especially problematic is that this is wide-spread, with Kentucky among the bottom three states when measuring the prevalence of five different types of cancer. Two other types rank just a little higher.
The state has taken a variety of steps over the years in an effort to turn that around. In 1990, for example, the General Assembly set aside money for breast cancer screenings; since then, more than a quarter-million mammograms have been conducted at our health departments.
We complemented that in 2005 with the establishment of the Breast Cancer Research and Education Trust Fund. It receives money from the highly popular pink-colored specialty license plate, which has generated nearly $1 million since 2008. An income-tax refund check-off has raised almost $270,000 more.
Speaking of specialty plates, there are plans to unveil a similar one in 2014 for lung cancer research and outreach, if there are at least 900 pre-orders at a cost of $25 each.
In 2008, the General Assembly established a colon cancer screening program. This is one disease that has truly seen its share of ups and downs in Kentucky, because our diagnosis rate was better than the national average until the early 1980s. Now, our rate among the states is near the bottom.
We are poised to see that change soon, though, because early screenings have jumped dramatically in recent years. There were nearly 95,000 colonoscopies done in 2010, which was far more than the 51,600 done just three years earlier. Almost two-thirds of Kentuckians that should be tested are getting screened, which in this case are principally those 50 to 75, with Africa-Americans encouraged to start at 45 because of a higher risk factor.
Colon cancer is one area where early detection is crucial, because it can reduce the mortality rate by as much as 90 percent. Early detection is far less expensive to treat, too; late-stage cases cost about four times as much. In 2010, our hospitals reported in-patient charges for this type of cancer alone was nearly $100 million.
Early this year, Gov. Beshear announced that 10 health departments will receive grants to expand colon cancer screenings. The focus of this program is centered on those 50 to 64 who do not have insurance.
In addition to this preventive work across the state, we have funded a significant amount of cancer research as well. The University of Kentucky has spent more than $100 million in this field since 2009, and the University of Louisville can forever claim a major role in developing the world’s first 100 percent effective cancer vaccine, which in this case is targeted at cervical cancer.
Events like Relay for Life are also raising awareness and money, and this is the time of year when most are held across the state. I encourage you to take part, especially if you or someone close to you has battled this disease.
Although there wasn’t any legislation adopted earlier this year dealing strictly with cancer, it is worth noting that the General Assembly did take another major step forward in preventive medicine. In this case, we mandated newborn screening for critical congenital heart disease, which is the country’s most common birth defect and its deadliest. With early detection, though, the survival rate jumps to 85 percent.
This screening dovetails with our overall success at getting young children the treatment they need. In 2011, only North Dakota had a higher percentage of children receiving the vaccines recommended for infants and toddlers by the Centers for Disease Control.
It is no surprise that early detection is key in fighting a host of diseases. If it is time for your check-up, I hope you will take whatever steps your doctor recommends. Don’t delay these preventive tests, because all too often, many of these diseases don’t cause us discomfort until their later stages. If we wait until we feel sick, there is a good chance we may have waited too long.