Ky. Voices: Decline in cancer death rate encourage, but disease major problem in Ky.

Dr. Mark Evers, director, University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center
Dr. Mark Evers, director, University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center

Earlier this month, a report from the nation's leading cancer organizations showed death rates in the United States from all cancers for men and women continued to decline between 2000 and 2009. The findings came from the latest Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer. This is good news, and it is encouraging.

But even though cancer rates across the nation are decreasing, cancer is still a huge problem in our state — more than 25,000 new cancer cases were diagnosed in Kentucky in 2012.

In fact, Kentucky retains the dubious honor of ranking first in the nation in cancer deaths per 100,000 population among all states, and we have the second highest incidence rate for all cancer sites.

As a whole, Kentucky is also ranked in the top 10 states for incidence rates of these cancers: lung and bronchus (No. 1), colon and rectum (No. 1), oral cavity and pharynx (No. 1), kidney and renal pelvis (No. 2), brain (No. 3) and cervix (No. 8).

In the Appalachian region of the state, this problem is magnified further. This area has among the highest cancer incidence and mortality rates in the entire United States, and these rates are especially high for lung, colorectal and cervical cancers.

These statistics are troubling, and numerous factors have affected our cancer burden here. The mission of the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center, as part of the UK HealthCare enterprise, is to reduce this burden through a comprehensive program of cancer research, treatment, education and community engagement with a particular focus on the underserved Appalachian population of Eastern Kentucky.

As the major referral center for Central and Eastern Kentucky, we've taken extraordinary steps in recent years to help combat cancer incidence and mortality, through promoting preventative measures, improving current treatments and patient access and facilitating cutting-edge cancer research. We've been aided greatly in our quest through the efforts of the Markey Cancer Foundation (formerly known as the McDowell Cancer Research Foundation), which has raised more than $70 million over the past 35 years to build our facilities and support our programs and research.

Our clinical and research work is not only backed by philanthropy, but also by the university and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. In fact, since 2009, nearly $114 million in institutional, state and philanthropic funds has supported the recruitment of cancer researchers and clinician scientists and the construction and renovation of clinical and state-of-the-art research space specifically for the oncology research and clinical programs at UK.

But we can — and are — doing more. In 2011, as part of an overarching new strategic plan for UK HealthCare, UK leadership declared that attaining a National Cancer Institute designation was the No. 1 priority of the university. Earning this designation would require strong efforts in research, recruiting and continually improving many of the programs at Markey.

NCI-designated cancer centers are a major source of discovery and development of more effective approaches to cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Currently, only 67 cancer centers across 35 states have earned this designation. Kentucky is one of the 15 states without an NCI-designated cancer center, and our cancer burden is highest of all these states.

As we continue to work toward earning this designation, improving care for Kentuckians will always remain our top priority. Achieving an NCI designation will enable Markey to provide better care for people across the state, ensuring no Kentuckian will have to cross state lines to receive access to top-of-the-line cancer treatment — and providing even more much-needed support to the people of Appalachia.