Gainesville resident Hazel Walter, an 89-year-old sister to two and aunt to 10, could not believe how heavy the small lump in her chest felt after her June 21 diagnosis.
The benign lump she’d carefully monitored for 30 years had developed into stage one of the top cause of cancer-related deaths for women in the United States, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In North Central Florida, the disease is second to cancer of the trachea, bronchus and lung in cancer-related deaths for women.
“I thought, ‘This can’t be possible.’ Here I am having trouble with arthritis. I don’t need this,” Walter said.
North Central Florida’s age-adjusted cancer mortality rate is 28 percent higher than the rest of the state’s, according to the 2013 North Central Florida Cancer Report. The report is a review of more than 11 predominantly rural counties, which include Alachua, Bradford, Dixie, Gilchrist, Lafayette, Levy, Union, Putnam, Columbia, Hamilton and Suwanee from January 2013 by WellFlorida Council’s North Central Florida Cancer Control Collaborative.
The higher mortality rate of North Central Florida may be a result of its geographical area, said Lauren Pollock, the associate planner for the WellFlorida Council.
“We have some very rural counties that experience some unique health needs and as a result, the cancer rate is a little bit higher in our area,” Pollock said.
Jeff Feller, CEO of WellFlorida Council, said the difference between North Central Florida cancer incidence and mortality rates, when compared to the rest of the state, is unsettling.
“That begs a lot of questions regarding access to care, whether people are getting screened in time, maybe they’re coming to the table later with their cancer because of screening,” Feller said. “There’s a whole galaxy of questions.”
Local efforts are currently underway to inform North Central Florida residents of their cancer risks, causes of certain cancers and the importance of regular cancer screenings.
For example, one option for locals will be on Oct. 22 and 24 at the North Florida Regional Medical Center, located at 6500 W. Newberry Rd., when the American Cancer Society will host a Prevention Study-3. On both days, North Central Florida residents can sign up to participate in the cancer prevention study.
The focus of the study is on what lifestyle changes contribute to cancer as people age, said Dr. Cherylle Hayes, a physician and radiation oncologist at the Cancer Center at North Florida Regional Medical Center. Hayes is one of Walter’s doctors.
“Are we changing our lifestyles as we find out new information, like lung cancer’s association with cigarette smoking?” Hayes said. “That’s what this study’s going to look at. We know these lifestyle changes, as we age should occur, and what’s the link to cancer as we age?”
Cara Newby, the area executive director for the American Cancer Society, said a study like this is a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” for people to help make an impact.
“It’s an opportunity for them to be able to provide insight into what causes cancer and what doesn’t that could potentially help children and our children’s children from ever having to deal with this disease,” she said.
Though the 28 percent higher cancer mortality rate in North Central Florida compared to the rest of state seems daunting, residents can take steps to decrease their risk of cancer every day, Hayes said.
She recommended signing up to aid cancer research in October, to making individual lifestyle choices. Not eating processed foods, exercising regularly and being vigilant about cancer screenings all lower one’s risk of developing a life-threatening cancer, Hayes said.
Because Hazel Walter was screened every year, she was able to catch her cancer early and undergo surgery and radiation at The Cancer Center at North Florida Regional Medical Center in July. Within two months of being diagnosed with breast cancer, she was cancer-free.
“I think there’s many ways to change statistics,” Hayes said. “You can improve your own statistics by changing your lifestyle and being the president and CEO of your body. Statistics is information, not condemnation.”