GREEN BAY — Whose life hasn't been touched by cancer? Broach the topic and the stories pour out.
• Your neighbor's husband and his fight to live.
About this series
Several weeks ago, I had a conversation with the editor of our paper, Sam Lucero, about running a series of stories about cancer patients and their families. The focus of the series would be on the struggles and challenges that families face when dealing with this dreaded disease. Cancer not only attacks you physically, but it also attacks you psychologically and spiritually. And if you don’t have good insurance coverage, it can take its toll on you financially as well.
Over the next several weeks, you will have a chance to read the stories about the courageous battle that cancer patients and their families are facing. Cancer patients know that life is a beautiful and precious gift from God that shouldn’t be taken for granted because it’s very fragile. And it can change in a heartbeat.
If you have any comments on the series, send them to
or mail them to The Compass, P.O. Box 23825, Green Bay, WI 54305-3825.
• Your two friends who conquered breast cancer.
• Your grandmother who lived to a ripe old age despite breast cancer.
• Your grandfather who succumbed to bone cancer.
• The co-worker who caught pre-cancerous polyps early as a result of a colonoscopy.
• A co-worker whose mother has just begun the journey of hospice care.
• Your father who died from esophageal cancer.
• A new friend who is sorting through the grief of losing his wife to cancer.
• The friend whose granddaughter battled and defeated childhood leukemia.
• A co-worker who's sorting through the raw details of a new diagnosis.
A cancer diagnosis is overwhelming.
And cancer statistics are humbling.
According to the American Cancer Society, there were 27,590 new reported cases of cancer in the State of Wisconsin in 2008. That translates to an estimated 75 Wisconsinites each day of the year hearing the diagnosis, "You have cancer."
In all, says the American Cancer Society, half of all men and one-third of all women in the United States will develop cancer during their lifetimes.
In 2007, the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Cancer Society, along with the Wisconsin Cancer Reporting System of the Division of Public Health, Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services, joined forces to issue a statewide report titled "Wisconsin Cancer Facts and Figures 2007," WCFF. (See www.wicancer.org.)
According to the report, out of the 5.5 million state residents an estimated 26,390 Wisconsinites were diagnosed with cancer in 2006.
The good news is that 17,000 of those individuals - or 65 percent - were anticipated to survive five years after diagnosis. That matches up with the national average survival rate of 65 percent for all cancers combined. Early detection is a significant reasons for that success rate.
The sad news is that in 2008 an estimated 11,220 people died from cancer in Wisconsin, according to the American Cancer Society.
Cancer a group of diseases
Laurie Pagel of the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Cancer Society works with the media to spread the good as well as the sobering news when it comes to cancer statistics and research. She's based in Green Bay but services the entire state. Cancer is really "a group of diseases ... you can't just search for one cure," she said.
"Our organization won't rest until those numbers go to zero," she said.
And many things have been going right in the war on cancer. According to WCFF, from 1994 to 2003 the cancer mortality rate for both males and females have declined approximately 10 percent and 9 percent, respectively.
Prayers to St. Peregrine
As part of our series on Coping with Cancer, The Compass invites our readers to submit names of friends and relatives who are battling cancer. At the end of our series we will publish the names, along with a Prayer to St. Peregrine, patron saint of cancer patients. All of our readers are then invited to offer prayers for those listed. Send names to
Why? It can be directly attributed to an increase in early detection, better treatments and increased awareness of high-risk behaviors such as smoking. "The sooner a cancer is found and treated, the better the chances are for living for many years," says the American Cancer Society.
And it is with prevention that not just some cancers, but "most types of cancer" can be reduced.
Quitting smoking, limiting time in the sun, being physically active and eating a better diet can have a profound effect on prevention.
Here's a run-down on some of Wisconsin's most common cancers.
Cancer incidence rates have increased most dramatically for melanoma, a type of skin cancer that can spread quickly to other parts of the body. In the decade from 1994 to 2003 male melanoma rates increased by approximately 33 percent and female rates increased by 60 percent. It is very curable when detected early, reports WCFF.
The National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov) reports that in 2008 the single most common type of cancer was the highly curable nonmelanoma skin cancer, with more than 1,000,000 new cases expected in the United States last year. Nonmelanoma skin cancers represent about half of all cancers diagnosed in this country.
Lung cancer declined eight percent for men from 1994 to 2003.
On the flip side, women experienced a comparable increase in lung cancer incidence, up by 11 percent from 1994 to 2003. This is largely attributable to increased smoking.
The sad reality is that lung cancer was the leading cause of cancer deaths in 2003, taking the lives of more than 2,700 Wisconsin residents.Yet, according to WCFF, it is the most preventable cancer.
More people died from lung cancer than from breast, prostate and colorectal cancers combined. More men in Wisconsin died from lung cancer than the national average and in Wisconsin more women died from lung cancer than breast cancer.
And unfortunately, according to the report, lung cancer in Wisconsin is most often diagnosed at a later stage, which negatively impacts the length of survival.
Female breast cancer mortality declined 23 percent during the 1994-2003 period while cervical cancer mortality rates decreased by 36 percent during this same time. Early detection is given credit for those statistics.
And both males and females experienced lower mortality rates in colorectal cancer in 2003 than in 1994, with mortality rates declining by 19 percent and 18 percent, respectively.
Pagel noted that "people are still afraid" of the colonoscopy used to screen for colorectal cancer, which is recommended for everyone at age 50. She calls the screening tool "amazing" because "you can find cancer before it becomes cancer and have it taken off."
Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer for men and the second leading cause of cancer death among men.
It is typically a disease found among older men and is often a relatively slow growing cancer. The main risk factor is age, with all men over age 50 recommended to discuss screening options with their doctor. Though early detection and screening tests currently available increase survival and treatment options, WCFF notes that "most men over 50 in Wisconsin have never received the recommended tests."
Older age groups generally have higher cancer rates than younger age groups, notes WCFF. In 2006 more than 75 percent of new cancer cases occurred in those age 55 and older.
But, said Pagel, "Your individual cancer risk has more to do with what you do, your behavior, than what you inherit."
Tobacco use was responsible for one in five deaths in the United States, including 30 percent of all cancer deaths, according to the Wisconsin report.
The report also notes that 30 percent of all cancer deaths nationwide can be attributed to adult diet and obesity.
After that the risk factor statistics fall off dramatically with only five percent of cancers linked to family history, five percent linked to occupational factors and even less (two percent) linked to environmental pollution.
Each individual has the power to control common risk factors, said Pagel. The fund-raising endeavors the American Cancer Society does to support its programming is easy compared to getting people to take prevention seriously, she said: "Getting people to change their behavior is 10 times harder."
What is cancer?
According to the American Cancer Society, "Cancer is the general name for a group of more than 100 diseases in which cells in a part of the body begin to grow out of control. Although there are many kinds of cancer, they all start because abnormal cells grow out of control."
Cancer cells develop because of damage to DNA, says the American Cancer Society. DNA is in every cell and directs all of the cell's activities. Most of the time when DNA becomes damaged, either the cell dies or is it is able to repair the DNA. In cancer cells, the damaged DNA is not repaired.
People can inherit damaged DNA, which accounts for inherited cancers. Many times though, a person's DNA gets damaged by things like tobacco smoke, too much sunlight, chemicals or viruses.
Cancers can also begin in different parts of the body, with different types of cancers growing at different rates. That's why they respond to different treatments. Because cancer cells keep growing and dividing, they are different from normal cells. Instead of dying, they outlive normal cells and continue to grow and make new abnormal cells.
Cancer usually forms as a tumor (a lump or mass) though some cancers, like leukemia, do not form tumors. Instead, these cancer cells involve the blood and blood-forming organs and circulate through other tissues where they grow.
Cancer cells often travel through the bloodstream or through the lymph system to other parts of the body where they begin to grow and replace normal tissue. This spreading process is called "metastasis."
Not all tumors are cancerous. Non-cancerous "benign" tumors do not spread to other parts of the body and are rarely life-threatening, according to the American Cancer Society.
When cancer spreads to a different part of the body it is still named for the place in the body where it started. That's why, for example, breast cancer that has spread to the liver is metastatic breast cancer, not liver cancer. Prostate cancer that has spread to the bone is called metastatic prostate cancer, not bone cancer.
Millions of people today are living with cancer or have had cancer. What percentage of people survive cancer? According to WCFF, survival rates for cancer increased dramatically throughout the 1900s. Fewer than 20 people in 100 lived past five years with cancer in the 1930s. By the 1960s 33 out of 100 survived five years.
Today, 66 people out of 100 diagnosed with cancer will survive five years. The National Cancer Institute estimates there are more than 10 million cancer survivors in the United States. The number one goal of the American Cancer Society is prevention, said Pagel, who lost her older brother to cancer.
"We've got to change our behavior in this country," she said. And at the top of the list, she emphasized, is getting people to stop using tobacco, start improving their diets and getting more regular exercise, and getting the necessary cancer screenings. She also warns about the detriment of second-hand smoke in the environment.
"These are things that only we can do," she said. "We have to do it."
Education is a big part of the American Cancer Society's mission, said Pagel. "I think it's the fear of the unknown," that's what scares people the most, she said. Their Patient Navigator program is a valuable resource for people working through cancer. They also have a multitude of valuable resources for family and friends, caregivers, survivors of cancer and medical professionals.
No question goes unanswered, said Pagel.
"Empowering people to fight back against cancer in their community," that's the role of the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Cancer Society, she said.
And everyone, said Pagel, needs to be in the fight together.
For more information see the American Cancer Society Web site at www.cancer.org or call anytime 24 hours a day, seven days a week toll-free 1 (800) 227-2345.