If you have been anywhere near a television or the Internet lately, you know that the world is reeling from the passing of beloved sports journalist Stuart Scott at the young age of 49. Most of us heard that he died from cancer of the appendix, a rare form of cancer that affects less than 1000 people a year in the United States according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center. Although rare, appendicular cancer often does not present until it’s advanced. And unlike cancers of the breast, prostate, or colon, there are no routine screening tests.
There are risk factors that increase the chance of having cancer of the appendix. These include smoking tobacco, being a woman, having a family history of appendix cancer and other types of syndromes such as Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia type 1, and conditions that affect your stomach’s ability to make acid. Of course, having these risk factors does not mean that cancer is inevitable. While unclear about Mr. Stuart’s risk factors, we know he bravely fought 3 bouts of recurrence before his death.
As most of us know, cancer is not a new disease. Its earliest recorded descriptions, specifically about breast cancer and the lack of treatment, date back to ancient Egypt. The word itself, Karakinos meaning crab, came into use much later and is credited to the Greek physician considered the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates (460-370 BC).
However, when we hear that a young person dies of cancer, we tend to be perplexed and become reflective of our own mortality. The thought of cancer, having it, or dying of it scares the majority of us. Something about the “C” word conjures up senses of doom and gloom like no other disease – not even heart disease of which more Americans die from every year, especially those over 65. These one-two punches by heart disease and followed by cancer are a longstanding trend. Cancer has actually been one of top five causes of death since 1935. Even though Mr. Stuart’s cancer is very rare, for those in his age group 45-54, cancers are actually the leading cause of death according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So how uncomfortable should the C word make us? The American Cancer Society latest annual report in 2014 projected that the number of people in the United States who got new cancers is estimated to be 1,665,540 people. For the same year, 585,720 are estimated to die from their cancer; equal to about a quarter of the population of Brooklyn. Most cancers are diagnosed after the age of 55. Men have slightly higher lifetime risk of getting cancer than women. In terms of trends over time, number of new cases of cancers has been stabilized over the most recent years among women with some decline among men.
The good news is the death rate from cancer for both men and woman has been declining over the past twenty years, which translates of about 1,340,400 deaths not happening. More than any other group, African-American men ages 40-49 experienced the greatest decline from cancer deaths according to the report. In addition, the 5-year survival rate is up and had increase since the 1970s. This is mostly a reflection of earlier and improved screening, diagnosis and treatment.
While these statistics are hopeful for most of the American public, it is still discouraging to hear that people like Mr. Stuart lost their battle with cancer. Although, Stuart Scott may not have been able to do much to change his fate, the reality is that the majority of cancers are now known to be related to factors that are in our control. Only a small number of cancers are due to genes we inherited –about 5-10%, but are more likely a result of damaging the genes we inherited, over our lifetime.
Damage is mostly caused by environmental and lifestyle factors such as the sun, what we put in our mouths to eat (actually a third of cancers are linked to poor diet), breathe into our lungs, and stress to name a few.
All factors many of us have the opportunity to control and can empower ourselves and families to do better in the New Year…two “c” words to live by.