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Lung cancer is West Virginia's leading cause of cancer deaths

by Darlene J. Taylor

STAFF WRITER

CLARKSBURG -- Beth Miller of Clarksburg was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 1994. Clarence Lenhardt of Reynoldsville was told he had lung cancer on May 17, 2000.

These are just two of the more than 9,000 West Virginians newly diagnosed with cancer each year -- the second leading cause of death in West Virginia, surpassed only by heart disease.

The American Cancer Society and the state's top health officials agree that lifestyle changes and early medical treatment can help to change the cancer statistics that plague West Virginia.

A newly released West Virginia Cancer Registry study also shows that approximately 4,700 West Virginians died of cancer each year from 1993-1998. Cancer of the lung continues to be, by far, the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the state, accounting for one in three cancer deaths.

Compared to other states, West Virginia has significantly higher death rates from lung cancer -- sixth highest for men and fourth highest for women in the U.S.

Running a distant second is prostate cancer among men and breast cancer among women. Cancer of the colon is the third most common form of cancer.

Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial, according to Miller and Lenhardt.

Miller began treatment after the initial shock of the news wore off.

"I chose to have reconstructive surgery, which included six surgeries in eight months, and six chemotherapy treatments in a four-month period. I was really glad when it was over," she said.

Lenhardt is also a believer in a positive attitude. When he found out, he "came home, got my fishing pole, went fishing and turned it over to the Lord to handle."

An avid traveler, he did not let the diagnosis change his plans for an 11-day trip to Germany.

"I started the 31-day treatment of radiation and two chemotherapy treatments when I got back," said Lenhardt. "I haven't given up traveling. I recently went to Mexico, Arizona and Lake Powell, Utah."

The 78-year-old Reynoldsville resident quit smoking 38 years ago, but was told by physicians that 50 percent of the damage is done after you smoke your first cigarette.

"I tell people to see their physician regularly and quit smoking," said Lenhardt, a father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

The state Department of Health and Human Services recommends some lifestyle changes that can reduce cancer risks.

"Prevention strategies include reducing tobacco use, reducing dietary fat and increasing consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables and fiber," said Paul Nusbaum, secretary of the DHHR and contributor to "Cancer in West Virginia Incidence and Mortality 1993-1998."

Miller, a wife and mother of two, said she received a lot of support during the ordeal.

"I also try to watch my diet and exercise more regularly," said Miller.

But she said nothing is more important than monthly self-examination.

"If you find anything, do not hesitate to see a physician, and get annual mammograms. You are in command of your own body," she said.

Miller also emphasized that there are more survivors every year, and a diagnosis is not the end of the world.

"A positive attitude is 80 percent of the battle, with the other 20 percent being actual treatment," she said.

Officials agree that access to proper medical care to detect and treat cancers is critical. Health screening such as regular mammograms, Pap smears, stool tests for blood and prostate exams can dramatically reduce the burden of this disease, said Nusbaum.

Mary Lough, cancer control community specialist at the American Cancer Society, said research has demonstrated that many cancers can be prevented or, if detected and treated at early stages, cured. Cancers caused by cigarette smoking and heavy use of alcohol could be prevented completely, she said.

Scientific evidence suggests that up to one-third of cancer deaths are related to nutrition, and many skin cancers could be prevented by protection from the sun's rays.

"Regular screening and self-examinations can detect cancers of the breast, tongue, mouth, colon, rectum, cervix, prostate, testis and skin at an early stage, when treatment is more likely to be successful," Lough said.

"Early detection and proper treatment would enable 95 percent of the patients with these cancers to survive," she said.

Staff writer Darlene Taylor can be reached at 626-1442 or by e-mail at dtaylor@exponent-telegram.com.

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