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Cancer rates spur inquiry

Al Musella's Comments: (This is his personal views and are not necessarily the views of the Musella Foundation!)


Posted on: 03/26/2004

Cancer rates spur inquiry

By EVE BYRON - IR Staff Writer - 03/26/04

Lewis and Clark County and state officials are investigating concerns of St. Peter Hospital's two oncologists, who are observing what they believe is a high incidence of aggressive brain tumors among Helena residents.

Dr. Steven Todd said that this year alone, he and fellow oncologist Dr. Thomas Weiner have seen around 10-12 cases of high-grade astrocytoma brain tumors known as glioblastoma multiforme and eight to 10 cases last year. Statistically, the average crude rate nationwide is five to six cases per year per 100,000 people.

On Thursday, Todd said that while the higher rates could be just a statistical blip, it also could be a cancer cluster. Either way, it's something he plans on looking into further.

"It seems that we have a higher percentage of people with these aggressive brain tumors in the Helena area," Todd said. "That's just an observation I've made, and we're going to get statistics and compare them with national standard rates to see if what I'm observing is true or it's just more of a statistical thing."

Montana State Epidemiologist Todd Damrow was made aware of the oncologists' observations this week, and said he also will investigate their report.

Both Damrow and County Health Officer Joan Miles are quick to note that it's not unusual for their offices to field reports of potential cancer clusters, and that those reports frequently turn out to be unsubstantiated.

Still, they take the reports quite seriously.

"You never know when the next one is going to turn out to be Libby," Damrow said on Thursday, referring to the outbreak of lung cancer and asbestosis uncovered in the northwestern Montana community in 1999. "We're not at the point where we want to sound the bells and whistles … but we will go in and take a look and see if the rate of occurrence of cancer is greater than the expected rate."

The type of aggressive brain tumor the oncologists observed traditionally occurs in people between their late 30s to mid 60s, Todd said. Gliobtastoma multiforme tumors usually are fatal, with death within three months of diagnosis without treatment, and within 1-3 years with surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy.

Todd and Damrow said they plan to look at local, state and national cancer registries and statistics to evaluate the numbers. When doing so, they'll keep in mind Helena's small population and the law of averages.

"In smaller populations, you can be much more susceptible to blips," Todd said. "Say 20 people were going to get those types of tumors in five years in Helena, and it just so happens that 20 get them in the first three years, and in the second two years no one gets them. We would still be right on average."

Of particular concern to those investigating the doctors' observations is the abundance of heavy metals and arsenic in soils, water and air in Lewis and Clark County due to historic mining practices and the Asarco lead smelter in East Helena. Some of the contaminants — arsenic, in particular, but other heavy metals as well n are known carcinogens.

Aimee Reynolds, a risk assessor for the state Department of Environmental Quality, took a quick look earlier this week at information on the number of tumors in Lewis and Clark County. She notes that the state's tumor registry information that she perused only dated from 1996-2000, so recent tumors may not be included in the registry. But early indications show that cancer rates in Lewis and Clark County actually are lower than the national rate.

However, when Reynolds did her research she wasn't aware of the type of cancer the oncologists were seeing, so she didn't look specifically at this type of brain tumors.

Damrow's office, in conjunction with the Lewis and Clark County Health Department, will undertake that type of scrutiny. He expects to reach some initial conclusions within the next few weeks.

But again, Damrow doesn't want people to become overly concerned at this point.

"A lot of people don't realize that you have a one in three lifetime chance of getting cancer, and a one in four chance of it affecting your household," Damrow said. "So what can appear to be a cancer cluster isn't. Fortunately, most don't turn out to be clusters, but sometimes they do."

Todd said he's pleased that Damrow is showing interest in the situation, and adds that he hopes to get the cancer committee at St. Peter's Hospital involved in the investigation too.

Reporter Eve Byron can be reached at 447-4076 or by e-mail at

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