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Rural Patients More Likely To Die Of Cancer, Study Finds

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a new dimension to the urban-rural divide: death rates related to cancer.

Cancer death rates are falling nationwide, but they remain higher in rural areas (180 deaths per 100,000 persons) than in cities (158 deaths per 100,000 persons), according to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

“The findings are alarming, but I can’t say that we were really surprised,” says Lisa Richardson, director of the CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control.

The reasons behind rural America’s higher cancer death rate are two-fold, Richardson says. One reason is that the rural population tends to be older and more likely to smoke than their urban counterparts, which increases the risk of developing certain types of cancer.

Prevention, however, is just one piece of the puzzle. The CDC study found that while rural areas actually have a lower incidence of cancer than urban areas, the people diagnosed with cancer in rural areas are more likely to die.

The difference between cancer death rates in urban and rural areas is worsening over time. Cancer death rates are dropping across the country, but more rapidly in urban sectors. Many rural areas lack the hospitals, insurance networks and oncology clinics needed to treat cancers when they arise. It’s an infrastructure problem, Richardson says.

“Where you live really does determine what you have available to you and how well your outcomes are once you get cancer,” she says.

The types of cancer prevalent in rural patients tend to be the most preventable with early screening -- like colorectal and cervical cancers. But, Richardson says, that’s not always accessible. Rural counties had higher death rates from lung, colorectal, prostate, and cervical cancers, the CDC study found.

A lack of internet access in rural America stymies public health efforts, too, Richardson says. Without widespread, reliable, speedy internet service, rural doctors often have a hard time getting in touch with patients, and find it difficult to create tele-health programs, which could be effective in catching certain types of cancer early.

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As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada. I also host KUNC’s live community storytelling events.
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