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Lung cancer takes higher than expected toll in south suburbs

A state report on cancer rates indicates that more people die from lung cancer than expected in some south suburbs, particularly among women.

The Massachusetts Cancer Registry, in its annual cancer incidence report to cities and towns, highlighted the elevated numbers in some communities where the recorded number of deaths due to lung cancer during the years 2005-2009 — the latest for which statistics are available — was higher than expected. The predictions were based on the town’s population and corresponding statewide average annual age-specific incidence rates.

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The number of deaths from lung cancer was higher than expected for men as well in some communities, but the spread between the number of cases expected and the number recorded was often not as great.

Communities with a higher number of women dying from lung cancer than expected included Braintree, where 106 deaths were recorded for women instead of the expected 84; Brockton, 202 instead of 160; Holbrook, 45 instead of 22.2; Mansfield, 44 instead of 29.1; Marshfield, 64 instead of 47; Middleborough, 56 instead of 38.5; Norwood, 90 instead of 68.5; Quincy, 245 instead of 204; Rockland, 56 instead of 33; Wareham, 66 instead of 50.6; and Weymouth, 149 instead of 124.3.

Health officials said the numbers were particularly disturbing because of the type of cancer involved.

“This is one of the cancers that [is] very preventable,” said Norwood health director Sigalle Reiss.

Susan Gershman, director of the cancer registry, said while the sources of lung cancer can be varied, smoking is typically the number one factor.

She said cities and towns can help combat the problem with screenings for the disease and tougher tobacco regulations.

“I think they should consider some tobacco-control programs,’’ said Gershman, who suggested that local health departments work with the state’s tobacco control personnel — something several south suburbs, including Norwood and Holbrook, are already pursuing.

“We’re always concerned any time there is an elevated level of anything,” said Arthur P. Boyle Jr., health agent for Holbrook, where there is talk of updating the local tobacco ordinances and raising the smoking age.

“I think any time you can take cigarettes out of someone’s hands, that’s a good thing,” said Boyle, who said he quit smoking “cold turkey” 20 years ago.

He said education and environment have a lot to do with it as well, noting that there is less smoking in homes where parents don’t tolerate it.

As for why the numbers seem worse for women, Gershman said lung cancer rates have fallen faster among men than women because women typically started smoking — and quit — later than men.

In the communities cited above, the number of men dying from lung cancer was also slightly higher than expected. But the state report cautions that some of the figures did not carry the same level of confidence for statistical accuracy as those for women in those communities.

Braintree projected 74.6 men dying from lung cancer in 2005-2009 but recorded 92 deaths; Brockton projected 150.2 and recorded 181; Holbrook, 25.1 and 27; Mansfield, 30.6 and 21; Marshfield, 49.5 and 58; Middleborough, 33.2 and 50; Norwood, 62.4 and 79; Quincy, 179.1 and 185; Rockland, 32.8 and 41; Wareham, 52.4 and 76; and Weymouth, 114.2 and 128.

According to the American Cancer Society, the incidence rate has been declining in men over the past two decades, but has just recently begun to decrease in women.

From 2005 to 2009, lung cancer incidence rates decreased by 1.9 percent per year in men and by 0.3 percent per year in women.

But lung cancer still accounts for more deaths than any other cancer in both men and women, according to the group, which estimated that 228,190 new cases are expected in 2013, accounting for about 14 percent of cancer diagnoses.

In Norwood, Reiss said her department works to make sure tobacco vendors in town are complying with tobacco-control laws in not selling to minors and enforces the Massachusetts Workplace Smoking Law, which makes smoking in an enclosed workspace illegal. And the town’s Board of Health is considering a proposal that, among its measures, would ban the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors, block any new vending machines, require that outstanding fines be paid before permits are renewed, and ban tobacco sales in educational institutions.

A public hearing is set for Jan. 7.

“We want to stop people from starting to smoke,” said Reiss.

While smoking is considered the number one cause of cancer, exposure to radon gas released from the soil and building materials is estimated to be the second-leading cause of lung cancer in Europe and North America, according the American Cancer Society.

To address that, Reiss said her department offers residents coupons for inexpensive radon tests to help ensure the environment in their homes is safe.

Other risk factors listed by the cancer group include secondhand smoke, asbestos (particularly among smokers), certain metals, some organic chemicals, radiation, air pollution, diesel exhaust, and paint.

Jean Lang can be reached at jeanmcmillanlang@gmail.com
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