Medical providers and patient advocates are using a new study on breast cancer survivability to remind people of tried and true benefits of early detection and support for people in treatment.
The Rural Breast Cancer Survival Study found Humboldt County’s average death rate for female breast cancer is higher than other areas of California, but the differences are relatively small.
“There’s no need to panic even though our breast cancer death rates are higher than the rest of the state,” said Terry Uyeki of the California Center for Rural Policy at Humboldt State University.
Uyeki and her collaborators released the study findings to the media on April 20.
Dr. Ellen Mahoney, a surgical oncologist with St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka, said the study reinforces the importance of screening, and she urged women to talk to the primary care providers about when they should be tested. Sometimes women can be unsure whether to get tested because of conflicting information about who should be screened and when, but the best person for women to consult with on those questions is their health care provider.
“You can almost be assured, especially if you’re diagnosed at an early stage, that you will survive to live a normal life span these days,” Mahoney said. “The outcomes have really, really improved.”
Mahoney said efforts are underway to bring the next generation of breast cancer screening technology to the North Coast. By the end of this year, officials hope Humboldt County residents will have access to digital breast tomosynthesis, or 3-D mammography.
The technique creates a three-dimensional picture of the breast using X-rays and can improve results in women with dense breast tissue.
3-D mammography also has been shown to reduce false positive results, when a test shows an abnormal area that looks like cancer but turns out to be normal.
Because of the relatively small population in Humboldt County, researchers looked at 21 years of information about breast cancer diagnosis and mortality statistics.
About 90 women are newly diagnosed each year in Humboldt County with breast cancer. The death rate for Humboldt County was about 26 per 100,000 of population, and the state average rate is 23 deaths per 100,000.
However, the mortality rate for rest of rural California was about 22 per 100,000.
Uyeki said rates of obesity, tobacco and alcohol use, and diabetes — all risk factors for breast cancer — are higher in Humboldt County than the state rate. The study was not able to point to any one conclusion explaining the variation in rates.
“The differences easily can be the result of chance,” Mahoney said. “I don’t want to give an alarmist view to the public.”
The study findings also confirm the importance having a support system in place during treatment to help women deal with all of the ways a cancer diagnosis can affect them. Cancer affects a patient’s quality of life in physical, psychological, social and material ways.
“Women who were not married at diagnosis, single, divorced, widowed or without domestic partners, they also had shorter survival rates for breast cancer.” Uyeki said.
Uyeki said other research shows the social support from marriage, not the financial benefits, are the reason married patients have better outcomes.
A series of public meetings is planned to share the results of the study. The center and the Breast and GYN Health Project, a grassroots resource center for those facing breast or gynecologic cancer concerns, will be explaining the data and educating people about patient services available on the North Coast.
Brenda Elvine-Kreis, the client services director for the Breast and GYN Health Project, said her group can help patients with finances, transportation or consultations.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in Willow Creek. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Shelter Cove. We can still connect with you,” Elvine-Kreis said.
Cancer treatment has evolved over the years, Mahoney said, so patients today are informed from the point of diagnosis about the different ways their lives might be affected. The newest members of the St. Joseph cancer care team, for example, were a social worker, a dietician and a financial counselor.
Medical providers refer to the process as a multidisciplinary approach to cancer care.
“Before anybody does anything to you that can’t be taken back, there ought to be a plan in place,” Mahoney said. “The goal is to have a unified process, not have people compartmentalized.”
The study by the center and Breast and GYN Health Project also found that breast cancer death rates for women in rural areas of the state were similar to those of women with breast cancer in urban areas, but lower compared to Humboldt County death rates. The research examined factors associated with higher death rates from breast cancer in Humboldt County and the rest of California from 1990 through 2010.
Steven Moore can be reached at 707-441-0510.