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OPINION | EDITORIAL: The importance of cancer care

July 25, 2021 at 2:21 a.m.

In the past few weeks, the Pine Bluff news satchel has included stories about Jefferson Regional opening up its new cancer center. It's a "good news" story -- to a point.

In the innards of that story was a passage about the need for cancer care in southeast Arkansas. As one doctor put it, Arkansas has one of the highest rates of cancer incidence in the country, and southeast Arkansas and the Delta have the highest cancer rates in Arkansas. In short, the state is the worst of the lot, and we here in these parts are the worst of the worst, both in incidence of cancer and death from cancer.

Obviously, aggressive cancer services are a necessity, but two questions are begged: Why does this part of the state suffer the most? And is anything being done to combat the problem?

The doctor explaining it all was Charles Mabry, medical director of practice management for Jefferson Regional. He said environmental factors play a big role in how successful cancer is at killing people.

The picture he described was that of a perfect storm. For one, he said, cancer deaths track inversely with education. The higher educated one is, the more likely one is to survive cancer.

You can look at that any number of ways, but it's basically saying that the higher one is on the socioeconomic ladder, the better one's chances of survival. You're higher educated, you have a better job, you have health insurance, you go for checkups. You get things checked out. Hey, doc, take a look at this place on my arm. That's a world that doesn't exist for many in the Delta.

For the person who does not have many of the benefits of a job and health care and such, when they get cancer, their illness progresses unabated. And then when their cancer gets bad, when it's too late to do anything about it, they head to the doctor. For the poor person, that place that the well-off person had removed turns into skin cancer, which metastasizes to other parts of their body and becomes fatal.

Another doctor who spoke about the new center for a previous story said people in southeast Arkansas are also subjected to environmental risk factors associated with some industries and agriculture.

So we have exposure issues and a populace that is unable in many ways to react to adverse health conditions.

That is not a very attractive picture for our Natural State, and we wonder how aggressively the state is looking into finding solutions. Fixing a historical cycle of under-education and lack of attention to adequate health care in a poor part of the state is not something that can be fixed overnight. But in the many ways that politicians and various officials would claim that the state is working on the problem, we would suggest it's not enough.

If those living in central Arkansas or the northwest part of the state were experiencing unusually high rates of cancer and death from it, as compared to other regions of the state, people would be up in arms. Actually, considering where the state lands in the national cancer continuum, the whole state should be up in arms. It's just that our part of the state doesn't seem to get as much attention as it should. And that is not how it should be.

From a public policy standpoint, the state should be engaging scientists, researchers and universities in an attempt to find out how we can conquer this problem. Goals should be set. A cancer czar should be in place, someone who wakes up every morning with the sole job of battling this plague. If that is happening on some level, again, it hasn't been enough.

Jefferson Regional is trying to fill this gap by working with other hospitals and clinics in the region as it attempts to get more cancer care to more people and get that care to them earlier enough to make a difference. But the fact that we struggle so mightily with that problem is where the focus should be.

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