BY MARY WICOFF
If you live in Vermilion County, chances are you’ve been touched by cancer — either personally or you know someone who’s waged, and maybe lost, the battle. Cancer is the second leading cause of death, behind heart disease, in Vermilion County, according to the Vermilion County Community Health Plan 2012-2017, issued last year.
Two oncologists who treat area patients say the county has a cancer rate that’s higher than normal, compared to the rest of the state and country.
However, that trend has been stable in the last few years, said Dr. Vamsi K. Vasireddy, division head of medical oncology at the Carle Cancer Center.
Dr. Jo-Mel Labayog, medical director of the Presence United Samaritans Cancer Center, agreed, and said the area has a higher rate of lung cancer cases and deaths.
“Vermilion County has some of the highest smoking rates in the state,” he said, adding that many of the lung cancer patients come to the center in an advanced stage.
Labayog also noted the number of melanoma cases is rising quickly, nationwide, while Vasireddy said he’s seeing a worsening trend of more pancreatic and lower esophageal cancers.
Still, both doctors said lung cancer causes the most deaths.
A new study, the Cancer Prevention Study-3 (CPS-3), hopes to take a closer look at what causes cancer, and how geography, for example, plays a role.
Men and women between ages 30 and 65 across the country are being sought to take part in a long-term American Cancer Society study.
Labayog, 50, and Vasireddy, 42, both plan to participate. “That’s how important it is,” Labayog said.
Past studies in the 1950s and ‘80s have uncovered valuable information, such as the benefits of multivitamins in the prevention of cancer.
“Any way you can help people in your community and the future health of the next generation, I think it’s important to participate,” he said. “You can help make a difference down the road.”
Vasireddy said such studies reveal — or reinforce — the dangers of second-hand smoke, for example, or environmental factors. Vermilion County once was home to several factories, and that might be a factor in the cancer rate.
A higher rate of obesity also plays a role in some cancers. “People underestimate how harmful obesity is,” Vasireddy said.
By interviewing people about their environment and lifestyle, the study expects to find links to cancer. It’s also one of the first studies to explore genetics and cancer, he said.
Breast cancer tests
The Presence and Carle cancer centers have many resources available to people, including the availability of tests for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, which are associated with a high risk of breast and ovarian cancers. The test is simple — done with a blood draw or a sample swabbed from the mouth.
Insurance often will pay for BRCA testing if there’s a family history of breast cancer.
In May, actress Angelina Jolie revealed she had tested positive for the BRCA1 gene; as a result, she had a double mastectomy as a preventative measure.
A high-profile person such as Jolie can bring awareness of cancer issues before the public.
A couple of people have talked to Labayog about the issue, but, otherwise he hasn’t seen a sudden surge of women seeking the test. Instead, women would be talking to their family physician or someone at the Women’s Health Center, rather than him, he said.
Inherited genes account for 5-10 percent of all breast cancer cases, he said. The other 90-95 percent is “sporadic” — that is, not inherited, or with no definite cause.
Deciding whether to have the tests and how to react are difficult decisions for women, he said.
If a woman does decide to have the pre-emptive surgery, Presence also has a plastic surgeon who can do reconstructive surgery.
Vasireddy also said he hasn’t seen an increase in requests for the tests or surgery. The Carle Cancer Center also offers the tests.
An MRI is able to pick up the presence of small tumors, he said, and gives more information than the tests, which give the risks.
The important thing is counseling, he said. If a test returns positive, a woman needs to consider all options.
“What to do with the results is the frightening aspect,” he said. “The important thing is to talk to them about the test and what it means. That will take an emotional toll on the family, as well.”
To learn more about CPS-3, watch a video, or register for any of the sites in Illinois, visit http://www.cps3illinois.org or call toll-free (888) 604-5888.
Information also is available by calling Lawrence Underwood at the American Cancer Society at (217) 356-4861 or e-mail Lawrence.Underwood@cancer.org.