Kentucky cannot be proud that it has among the highest rates of cancer in the country and the highest incidence of cancer-related deaths in the nation. But, given that grim reality, Kentuckians should be both proud and relieved that the University of Kentucky has achieved recognition as a leading cancer research and treatment center.
Officials from UK and elsewhere gathered Friday to announce that the National Cancer Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health, has designated UK HealthCare's Markey Center as an NCI cancer center.
While this is an honor, it is one that acknowledges the hard, focused work that has made UK a place where people come to receive the highest levels of cancer treatment and conduct groundbreaking cancer research.
Designation as an NCI cancer center also places the Markey Center in line for funding, clinical trials and the fast track for new treatments that will yield additional benefits. It also enhances UK's ability to recruit the scientists conducting the most advanced research.
In the words of Dr. Mark Evers, Markey executive director, "It's the ultimate recognition for academic cancer centers."
So, congratulations to Evers and Michael Karpf, UK's executive vice president for health affairs, who led the enormous, four-year, $119 million effort to achieve this distinction, as well as to the many others who have worked long and hard for this recognition.
The money was well spent. Not only does this mean Kentuckians will be able to get excellent, cutting-edge care close to home, but the potential effect on the Central Kentucky economy will be enormous.
As an NCI center, Markey will attract more highly paid and educated scientists, whose research will generate drug and device company spinoff businesses, which will in turn create more high-tech jobs.
Amid all these congratulations, though, neither UK nor the rest of us should lose sight of the dreadful statistics that make Kentucky such a great place to do cancer research and treatment.
NCI notes that its cancer centers are places searching for "more effective approaches to cancer prevention, diagnosis and therapy. ... and reach out to underserved populations." There is abundant work to be done in Kentucky, not only in treatment but in prevention, and certainly this poor state is home to large underserved populations.
As UK pointed out in materials related to this announcement, the incidence of cancer in Appalachian Kentucky is 12 percent higher than in the rest of the United States, and the rate of cancer deaths in that region exceeds the national rate by an astounding 27 percent.
UK can, and should, lead the charge to identify the behavioral and environmental reasons behind those dreadful numbers, and push for public policies that can change them.