Cancer Clusters – Five Things You Should Know

Living where I live, after growing up where I grew up, is probably akin to insane recklessness. The incidence of and mortality from breast cancer in Long Island is significantly higher than it is in the rest of the country. I grew up in Queens, but you’ve heard the accents – close enough. I may have been saved by the fact that the rates increase the farther east you travel. Then, I carelessly moved to New Jersey. The Garden State boasts some of the top numbers for breast cancer incidence and mortality as well – double whammy. And you thought only teenagers consider themselves invincible. Many studies have been done to try to determine the factors that influence the rates of cancer in certain geographical locations. While some of the apparent clustering can be explained away based on genetics and similar risk factors in the population, pollution and the environment cannot be discounted. Maybe you’ve seen Erin Brockovich? Julia Roberts can even make a cancer cluster look good.

1. According to the CDC, a cancer cluster is defined as a greater-than-expected number of cancer cases that occurs within a group of people in a geographic area over a period of time.

2. A cancer cluster is not easy to determine. Why? There has to be much more evidence than the concerns of a few citizens. Cancer is a very general term for many different diseases. There are many known causes of cancer and it is, unfortunately, very common. 1 in 3 Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in his or her life. When external factors are to blame, it usually takes at least ten years between the exposure and the manifestation of the disease.

3. Common characteristics of a cancer cluster include the following: only one type of cancer, a rare type of cancer, and a type of cancer in a group that isn’t the typical population to get that particular type, e.g. adult cancers in children.

4. If you suspect or are concerned about a cancer cluster, the CDC recommends first requesting information about cancer incidence from your local health department or state cancer registry. If you are still concerned about the existence of a cluster, and want to determine a cause that can potentially be cleaned up, you can contact the CDC at 1-800-CDC-INFO or cdcinfo@cdc.gov.

5. Most reported cancer clusters turn out to be coincidence, a product of similar people with similar habits living in the same area, or a true cluster with no identifiable, and therefore correctable, cause. The fear that you or someone you care about lives in a cancer cluster can be spun in a positive light. Take the opportunity to cut back on the things that increase cancer risk, add things that are preventative, and utilize screening tests.

My mother grew up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and died of ovarian cancer at the age of 62. She had none of the risk factors for this disease, and had many of the things that are known to be protective. Intellectually, I know her case is likely the result of multiple factors including bad things happening to very good people. But, lurking unseen under the ground where she was raised, was a toxic dump, filled with known carcinogens. I don’t blame early 1900s factories anymore than I blame God … o.k. – I blame both of them a little. It does, though, make me think – what pollutants are my children exposed to while their young cells are working so hard to grow and develop? Don’t be surprised if you see a For Sale sign on my yard tonight.

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  • Do you think you really might move? I constantly waver on this. I’ve heard living in Manhattan is the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day (not sure if that’s true — it’s probably even worse.) I’m sorry about your mom.