In Petersburg and Southside Virginia, families are coping with medical mystery that is ravaging lives.
People living south of the James River to the North Carolina state border suffer from the second highest cancer death rate in Virginia, second only to Portsmouth.
The area is known as the Crater Health District, a region of 156,000 people that includes Hopewell, Petersburg, Emporia, Prince George and Dinwiddie Counties. The District's health director, Dr. Alton Hart, said in an interview Monday it has been a challenge to pinpoint the cause of high cancer rate.
"We actually haven't done any research to tell us why the rate is so high here," said Hart. "A study like that would be very difficult to undertake, and causes of these cancer levels can be extremely complex."
Prostate cancer is the deadliest cancer affecting the Crater District. But according to Dr. Mary Helen Hackney from VCU Massey Cancer Center, the risks are not specific to the region.
"The biggest risk of getting prostate cancer is being an aging man," Hackney said. "And you can't change being a man, you can't change getting older."
African-Americans are also more at risk for developing prostate cancer, and the other two major cancers affecting the area, lung and colon, are preventable. Deaths from lung cancer are 95 percent linked to smoking, and colon cancer can be treated with early screening.
But social factors could push the death rates higher. Low education, lack of affordable housing and unemployment often increase cancer deaths. Antoinette Ayers from VCU Massey is one of the people who have helped to create a Healthy Living and Learning Center at the Petersburg Library. The Center's mission is to help residents who might be intimidated to learn about cancer on their own.
"People can take the time to sit down here and listen to accurate, easy to understand videos about any type of cancer," Ayers said. "They may not have the time or they may not have been aware to ask that question, or comfortable asking that question in a physician's office."
Breast cancer survivor Raymon Bessix met Ayers through a Massey outreach project, and said understanding her diagnosis was half the battle.
"There were times when I didn't know where information was going to come from," Bessix said. "I was in the dark about a lot of my diagnosis."
From the library to the lab, Petersburg's Southside Regional Medical Center is also helping the fight.
Dr. David Penberthy said the hospital's advanced cancer treatment machine, known as a linear accelerator, is a valuable resource the community is lucky to have.
"We worry about the insurance issues later," Penberthy said "So we'll treat anybody at anytime. We are need and insurance blind in that regard."
Southside Medical Center is scheduled to open a $10 million dollar cancer center in Petersburg by the end of 2013. There are no plans in development to study cancer causes in the Crater Health District in greater detail.
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