High cancer rate among Goochland’s black men

Franklin Brice spent his adult life working among cancer patients at the Medical College of Virginia. Soon after retirement, he began his own battle with the debilitating disease. 

“He never had any health problems,” said Irene Brice, Franklin’s wife. “He’d never even been to the hospital. I was floored.”

Brice was a healthy 71-year-old living in Goochland when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2005. He had spent 25 years working as a housekeeping director for MCV, witnessing people battle the very illness that he would eventually face.

Since his surgery at Henrico Doctor’s Hospital, his cancer has not returned, although he has since survived several strokes, which have left him without the ability to speak.

“At least he knows everybody,” Irene said. “He can say some things.”

Brice joins the scores of African-American males living in Goochland who have been diagnosed with cancer. Black males in Goochland are more likely to get cancer than black males living anywhere else in the state, according to the Virginia Department of Health’s cancer registry.

According to VDH’s most recent data, African-American males in Goochland are twice as likely as their Caucasian counterparts to become diagnosed with cancer.

However, cancer rates in Virginia and in Goochland have decreased dramatically during recent years. Between years 2000 and 2004, 792 cases of cancer were reported in Goochland. That number fell 75 percent to 197 reported cases from 2002 to 2006, although the decrease in cancer cases among black men fell by 68 percent.

But the number of reported cases do not necessarily provide an accurate picture  of the actual number of cases in an area, according to Dr. Jim Martin, director of the Virginia Cancer Registry.

Registry data is considered conservative because not all facilities report cases and not all patients receive care.

The actual rate of cancer among minorities also tends to be higher than reported, according to Rebecca Siegal, an epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society.

Additionally, self-reported racial identity plays a factor, Siegal said, noting that minorities are more likely to indicate a race of “other” rather than report more specific information.

Given those factors, this could mean that the actual number of African-American males with cancer may be higher in Goochland than the cancer registry indicates.

However, Siegal noted that “if the rates for all the cancer sites in black men are significantly higher in [Goochland], it is likely that there is an issue with…. the population estimate…”

But minority population estimates are often inaccurate, Siegal said, and are typically an under-representation of the actual population.

Despite the evidence, the situation is not defined as a cluster by the Centers for Disease Control and VDH.

“We can’t detect a [cancer cluster] unless somebody has a suspicion,” Martin said, adding that clusters usually involve either high instances of rare cancers, high rates of cancer among young people, or a rare cancer occurring among people living in close proximity to each other.

According to VDH and CDC, no Goochland residents have reported a potential cluster. Irene Brice, however, said that she knew many people in her area with cancer, but none would be interviewed for privacy concerns.

In general, black males are the ethnic group most likely to be diagnosed with cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

Martin said that much research is being done to understand the role that ethnicity plays regarding an individual’s risk of developing cancer.

Other risk factors for developing cancer are behavioral, such as smoking and eating habits, Siegal added.

But lifestyle choices aren’t the only things that can cause cancer. A number of fertilizers and chemicals are being investigated to determine if they have carcinogenic effects on humans.

It just happened to Eugene Brice, without warning. But he and his wife are no strangers to the cancer fight. Irene defeated cervical cancer more than 30 years ago.

Originally published in The Central Virginian.

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