Monday, April 1, 2013

The Power of Knowledge: Using What We Know to Fight Cancer

By: Ed Partridge, M.D., Director of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center
155,930 - the estimated number of new cancer cases in 2012 in the southeastern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, according to the American Cancer Society. In that six-state region, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Comprehensive Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer center. It provides care for more than 20,000 patients, with more than 5,000 new cancer cases evaluated each year.

We diagnose and treat patients from all areas of the United States, as well as from different countries around the world. However, many of our patients come from Alabama and the five surrounding states to seek the care and counsel of one of only 41 NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the country. Because of the number of new cases each year in these states, the UAB cancer center strives to offer the best treatment to its patients, as well as advance the world's understanding of cancer.

Based on what we have already discovered – and what will be discovered in the next several decades, there is little doubt that cancer will be conquered in this century. It will not be eliminated like smallpox, as cancer is a much more complex disease, but its impact on society will be reduced such that it is no longer a major public health problem.

The only question that is still outstanding is how early in this century will this occur. If we accelerate the delivery of what we already know that prevents cancer deaths as well as our discovery process by devoting more resources to research, this will become a reality sooner rather than later. For example, we know that at least 70 percent of cancer cases in the United States can be prevented by lifestyle modifications, such as eating more fruits and vegetables, increasing physical activity, and reducing or, even better, eliminating tobacco use. This is especially important for those of us in Alabama, which ranks seventh in the nation for cancer mortality with 211.3 cancer deaths per 100,000 people.

Related to this is the importance of eliminating health disparities among minorities and underserved populations, including those between people of lower and higher socioeconomic statuses. Using education as a measuring stick, the study found that people with a high school education or less died at a rate of up to five times higher than those with at least four years of college education. Among men, those with less education died of cancer at rates more than two and a half times than those of men with college degrees. These numbers among women were almost identical.

Why is this the case? Studies have shown that people with less education - often those in lower socioeconomic situations - are more likely to engage in risky health behaviors, such as smoking, poor nutrition and lack of physical activity. Likewise, these populations are less likely to have access to the care they need and screenings for early detection.

It is our duty to continue to address these disparities, which has been a longstanding commitment of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. While we launch new research and discover new treatments, we must also look for ways to deliver all of these discoveries to every single person, regardless of where they are in life.

Likewise, we must remember that the fight against cancer is a year-round activity, and the support of our community is critical in helping us achieve our mission of eliminating cancer as a public health problem. On behalf of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, I encourage you to learn more and get involved. Thank you for your support.

-Ed Partridge, M.D., is the director of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center and holds the Evalina B. Spencer Chair in Oncology. A native of Demopolis, Ala., Dr. Partridge is a nationally renowned leader in the research and treatment of gynecologic cancers as well as cancer health disparities. He is a past president of the American Cancer Society (ACS) National Board of Directors.

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