New research finds disturbing trends in cancer care in rural Appalachia

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (NEWSPLEX) -- New research finds that rural Appalachia has gone from having the lowest cancer death rate in the United States to the highest.

The University of Virginia School of Medicine reports it's part of a growing cancer crisis in the region, with disturbing trends in all sectors of cancer care, from screening to diagnosis to treatment.

However, the rest of the country appears to be making major strides in the battle against cancer.

"Look at the war on poverty that President {Lyndon} Johnson declared decades ago. We lost that war. We didn't fix the poverty issue in rural Appalachia, and the residents there have really really bad cancer outcomes," said research Nengliang Yao, PhD, of the UVA School of Medicine and the UVA Cancer Center. "We lost the war on poverty, and we're not doing much to battle the health care disparities in rural Appalachia. Because we can see it from our results: It's getting worse."

The paper, published in the Journal of Rural Health, calls the disparities in care "pervasive," and it urges a systematic effort to "reduce the burden of cancer for rural Appalachia."

Yao and others from the UVA Department of Public Health Sciences looked at data from the National Center for Health Statistics, spanning decades.

Among other trends, they noted that between 1969 and 2011, cancer incidence declined across the country except in rural Appalachia, where it went up, which caused the cancer death rate to go from the lowest to the highest in the U.S.

Cancer mortality rates between 2007 and 2011 were also 14.7-percent higher in the rural Appalachian counties in Virginia than in non-Appalachian urban areas in the rest of the country. In rural Appalachian areas in Kentucky, the mortality rate was 36-percent higher.

According to their research, rural residents in every other state in the Appalachian area, except for Maryland, had higher mortality rates than urban counterparts.

They also found that breast cancer is less likely to be caught early in rural Appalachia.

The paper reports people in Appalachia are more likely to die within three to five years of being diagnosed with cancer compared to people in urban areas outside of Appalachia.

There are several contributing factors to these results, including economic, geographic and political challenges all standing in the way of quality cancer care in the region.

Yao also said Appalachia is a beautiful area, but it is plagued by poverty, and its people tend to be extremely independent.

"It's very invisible. You don't hear their voices, rights? They kind of represent the old days of America," he said. "That's the ideology of America: Self-sufficient and independent. Those are their American values. They don't complain, so that's why you don't hear it."

Another problem in the Appalachian region is access to health care providers. Lower population numbers, significant distances and travel times, people with limited transportation options face major obstacles.

The region also deals with widespread obesity and high smoking rates.

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