Metro-East News

If you’re poor or black, you’re more likely to die from cancer in Southern Illinois. Why?

In Southern Illinois, people who are diagnosed with cancer are more likely to die if they are poor, black or if they live in rural areas, research shows.

The rates of death from colon cancer, in particular, are “much higher” there than in other areas, according to Aimee James, the lead researcher for the Siteman Cancer Center’s Program for the Elimination of Cancer Disparities.

Because of the disparities that exist in who lives and who dies, James and other researchers will soon begin studying Southern Illinois to figure out how they can help more people survive cancer or reduce their risk of getting sick in the first place. The team at the new, virtual research center — the Washington University Implementation Science Center for Cancer Control — will also study southeastern Missouri counties near the border with Illinois.

In St. Clair County, for example, white and black men are diagnosed with cancer at about the same rate, but more black men die from cancer, according to the U.S. Cancer Statistics Working Group. It analyzed data from 2012-2016 collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Cancer Institute.

Over those years, men were diagnosed with cancer at a rate of 514 per 100,000. But about 294 black men died for every 100,000 people, compared to 213 white men.

James said the researchers don’t know exactly why differences like this exist.

They do know the region has a problem with access to care, whether people need an oncologist for cancer treatment or a primary care physician for regular check-ups and cancer screenings, according to James.

Residents in the metro-east’s rural communities, like St. Libory or Okawville, have about an hour drive to see a cancer specialist across the river in St. Louis. The long drive is the reason Siteman Cancer Center is opening a satellite location in Shiloh in early 2020; in the meantime, Siteman doctors are seeing patients at an interim location in Swansea.

James said the time it takes for travel and treatment could mean a Southern Illinois resident has to take time off work. They may need to pay to take public transportation to get to their doctors. And that make it easier to put off medical care, according to James.

“It’s a lot of effort,” she said. “It could mean lost wages. It could mean additional costs. ... And the more treatment gets delayed, outcomes aren’t as good.”

There is also a lack of primary care physicians in Southern Illinois, with one doctor for every 1,720 patients in St. Clair County, according to a report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

Their reports from the last four years have ranked St. Clair County as one of the most unhealthy counties in the state because of the doctor shortage and residents’ unhealthy behaviors, as well as factors like the income inequality in the community.

Researchers at the new WashU center want to hear what the other needs are in the region, according to James.

She said the direction of researchers’ work will depend on input from people who live in the communities, people who are involved in organizations that advocate for them and people who work in healthcare.

Anyone interested in sharing their thoughts can contact James via email at aimeejames@wustl.edu or pecad@wustl.edu.

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The metro-east is home for investigative reporter Lexi Cortes. She was raised in Granite City, went to school in Edwardsville and now lives in Collinsville. Lexi has worked at the Belleville News-Democrat since 2014, winning multiple state awards for her investigative and community service reporting.
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