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Research Helps Address Cancer Cluster Concerns in Mount Vernon

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MOUNT VERNON, Iowa Each year, about 17,000 Iowans receive a cancer diagnosis. It's the second leading killer in the state, and most often tied to lifestyle choices, such as smoking, obesity, excessive alcohol use and sun exposure. Genetics can certainly play a role, too, but sometimes there's no simple explanation.

When Frank Benesh of Mount Vernon received his cancer diagnosis, he found the usual suspects didn't apply to him, or his daughter. They didn't use tobacco, were slim, and had never had cancer in their family. "My dad was diagnosed right after Thanksgiving 2010 and then six months later I was diagnosed in June of 2011," said Frank Benesh's daughter, Kim Benesh.

The Benesh family has lived in Mount Vernon for generations. Frank Benesh was a very familiar face in town, and people would stop him in the aisles at the Ace Hardware where he worked and share that they, too, had cancer.

Frank Benesh started asking his medical providers if there was some environmental cause for all the cancer cases he'd been hearing about. His nurse at the Hall-Perrine Cancer Center, Kris Sargent, knew just whom to contact.

Sargent remembered a suspected cancer cluster at what was then Regis High School in Cedar Rapids in the late 1970's. She knew an investigation took place, and knew who to call. She contacted Dr. David Lynch with the University of Iowa. "I don't think that Iowans know that cancer's reportable by law in the state," said Sargent. That data rolls into the Iowa Cancer Registry which holds demographic information on nearly all Iowans diagnosed with cancer since 1973.

Dr. Chuck Lynch and his team are the only ones in the state who investigate suspected cancer clusters.

Their findings are not made public, but sometimes those involved in the study share the information with local media, as in this case with Mount Vernon. The Iowa Cancer Registry service is free to those who suspect a cluster. But not everyone who wants such an investigation is guaranteed that he or she will get one. It's up to the discretion of Dr. Lynch's team.

To determine if Mount Vernon had an unusually high incidence of cancer, Dr. Lynch compared cancer types in Mount Vernon to Lisbon and Grinnell. If something in the environment was causing the cancer then there would likely be a spike in a certain type, like stomach cancer or leukemia.

The results show there was not a cancer cluster in Mount Vernon.

One of the researchers in the Mount Vernon study, Dr. Michele West, led a question and answer meeting with Mount Vernon residents to explain the methodology and findings of the study. The raw data can be confusing for non-scientists to unravel. And sometimes the feedback from residents leads to another comparison, which is what happened in Mount Vernon. But both studies yielded the same result: no cluster.

While the results don't explain what caused the cancer, it does allay fears that something in the water, soil or air was poisoning residents. Since the data didn't reveal a cluster, nothing further is investigated. Had Dr. Lynch's team identified a high incidence of cancer in Mount Vernon, they would have contacted the Iowa Department of Public Health for further investigation. Previously, IDPH has brought in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do even further research.

"If you don't do anything, the general feeling from the public is that you know something is going on and you're hiding it from us, so... We try to do these investigations fairly quickly, in a matter of weeks to a couple months we'll get the report out," said Dr. Lynch.

Dr. Lynch's team has identified two cancer clusters in the more than 100 such studies in Iowa. One case was a grouping of brain cancers in Wellman. The epidemiologists with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the sample size wasn't large enough to pinpoint a true cluster with environmental causes. The second case involved an undisclosed work place with a high number of employees diagnosed with testicular cancer. That investigation was halted because the employees didn't want to participate in the research.

Frank Benesh's daughter, Kim, survived ovarian cancer. Frank Benesh died in July 2012 to pancreatic cancer. He fought hard, exhausting more than half a dozen chemotherapy treatments in the year and a half after his diagnosis. The support group he started in Mount Vernon for those touched by cancer continues today.

"He [Frank] wanted to make sure that everyone was walking a safe, caring, provided journey whatever that journey was," said Kim Benesh.

The Iowa Cancer Registry Doctor Lynch used in this study is accessible to everyone. Click here to read it.

Join us tomorrow, Friday, at noon for a live question-and-answer chat with Doctor Lynch, his colleague Doctor Michele West, and the nurse featured in this story Kris Sargent.

Each played a role in this cancer cluster research in Mount Vernon and are available to address your concerns.

Just log on to starting at noon until 1 p.m. Friday to join the conversation.

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