Fighting cancer in Appalachia: Getting people screened ‘is still the hardest part;’ prevention requires multi-pronged effort, experts say

University of Kentucky video

Leaders of the National Institutes of Health spent Thursday in Hazard with Fifth District U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers and local health leaders to examine efforts to combat high rates of cancer and substance abuse in Appalachian Kentucky.

“Cancer rates in the region have been something we have been battling for many years and in more recent years this region has become ground zero for the prescription drug abuse epidemic,” Rogers told the gathering.

Screening rates are up, but Dr. Sam Bailey, oncologist at the Appalachian Regional Hospital Cancer Center in Hazard, told the group, “Getting patients to undergo the initial cancer screenings is still the hardest part. These screenings can save a person’s life but it is a challenge often to get people to take that first step that is so vital in detecting cancer early before it has advanced.”

The center often refers to the University of Kentucky‘s Markey Cancer Center patients who need specialized care, as well as for cancer clinical trials, but Bailey said getting people to travel to Lexington, or even the clinic in Hazard, “can be a barrier due to costs associated with gasoline and other transportation-related expenses,” a UK news release said.

Hollie Harris Phillips, vice president of corporate strategy at ARH, said the hospital has raised money “to provide gas cards to patients for them to use to get here to Hazard for their treatment or to UK and we’ve found for some patients it really makes a difference in whether or not they are able to get the care they need.”

But what about preventing cancer in the first place? “To make strides we have to do it all — clinical care, education, healthier food options and promoting more exercise,” said Dr. Tim Mullett, professor of surgery and medical director of the Markey Cancer Center Research Network. “Things are better now than they were 30 years ago in terms of engagement but things are worse than they were 30 years ago because of the consequences of obesity and lifestyle issues.”

Drug issues also discussed

Dr. Doug Lowy, director of the National Cancer Institute, complimented local health leaders’ efforts: “To see the way you have marshaled your resources in a multi-pronged way to seek answers to the issue of cancer as well as the very difficult situation occurring with the severe problem of prescription drug addiction is impressive. I applaud you for not just focusing on one problem. You really are a community that has come together to try to deal with the multifaceted nature of health and health problems in your community.”

The event also included Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and researchers at UK and its Hazard-based Center of Excellence in Rural Health, and Operation UNITE, the regional anti-drug agency with law-enforcement powers.

Volkow said at a roundtable discussion on the prescription drug epidemic in the region, “I cannot tell you how valuable this day has been to me because it gives me a perspective that you can’t get by reading journals or through scientific meetings. I hope we can continue this relationship and continue the discussion on how to battle this epidemic together.”

Later, at an event in Somerset, Volkow said Rogers’ efforts have made the Obama administration the first to commit “real resources” to the substance-abuse problem: “He has turned the tide and he has made it actually a priority that there is a problem with substance-abuse disorders in our country, and that is something that does not happen overnight.”

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