QUEENSBURY — State officials spent Thursday in Warren County on a search for reasons for the county’s high cancer rate.
The county had the highest overall incidence of cancer in the state during the study period, 2011 to 2015.
Officials met with oncologists and other experts during the day and then with the public at an evening meeting.
While they are looking into many things, experts pointed them in one direction they had not considered before: the county’s long history with paper mills.
“We knew that was out there, but we’ll take that back (to the office) and have Environmental Health look into it,” said Adrienne Mazeau, deputy director for the office of public health at the state Department of Health. “We’re looking at environmental. We’re also looking at occupations.”
Officials emphasized that the high cancer rate is unlikely to be a fluke, as some in the audience had hoped.
The rate from 2011 to 2015 was 15 percent higher than the rest of the state, which is statistically significant. It also took into account age and gender demographics.
“It is possible for something to be statistically significant and turn out to be by chance,” said Barbara Wallace, director of the division of chronic disease prevention for the state Department of Health. “But we wouldn’t expect that for multiple cancers.”
The study is looking specifically at lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, esophageal cancer, oral cavity (mouth and throat) cancer and brain tumors, all of which were diagnosed more in Warren County than elsewhere.
But Wallace told the public not to overreact.
“I don’t think it’s something to be overly alarmed by,” she said. “It’s not five times as high.”
She emphasized that the study will help the state find ways to address the cancer rate.
“There’s lifestyle factors — 40 percent of all cancers are caused by individual lifestyle factors,” she said.
If that turns out to be the defining difference between Warren and other counties, the state report at the end of the study will recommend specific lifestyle changes.
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The big possible culprit is still smoking. It is a risk factor in all but one of the cancers being studied in Warren County.
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But oncologists and other experts noted that Warren County doesn’t have a higher percentage of smokers than nearby counties. Yet the cancer rate is much higher here. They pointed to one way in which Warren County is different: the high rate of former smokers.
State officials said they will look into the number of cancer patients who smoked in the past. While risk factors for cancer and many other diseases drop significantly as soon as a smoker quits, cancer risk doesn’t go back to normal for 15 to 20 years, Wallace said.
“You’re always better off stopping smoking,” she said. “But we will be looking at not just the current smoking rate but the historical smoking rate. Smoking causes at least 16 different cancers. It’s one thing we will be looking at as part of the study.”
State workers are also studying the state cancer registry to look more closely at Warren County patient records. The registry collects all information on cancer diagnoses, including all lab tests, all treatments tried and the results. They are organizing all of the brain cancer diagnoses to see whether a particular type of brain cancer is diagnosed more often here.
“There’s many different types of brain cancer,” Wallace said.
They will also look at when each cancer was diagnosed.
“If thyroid cancer, for example, is diagnosed at an early age (for most patients), we could say, ‘Oh, maybe it was early screening,’ ” she said.
If the registry shows many cancer diagnoses were made late, the state report could recommend early screening for particular types of cancer in Warren County.
They said they were pleased with the information offered during their visit Thursday.
“Today is going to help guide us,” Mazeau said.
They plan to release their report by the end of the year.
The state is also studying three other regions, in Suffolk County, Staten Island and Buffalo, all of which have elevated levels of certain cancers.