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Part of southern Iowa has high lung cancer rates


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Part of southern Iowa has high lung cancer rates

Higher levels found in Wapello, Monroe and Mahaska counties

By JEFF HUTTON Courier associate editor

OTTUMWA — It’s been 22 years since Lowell Dahm snuffed out his last cigarette.

The New Sharon man originally started smoking in 1966 but decided to quit in 1986.

Always in relatively good health, Dahm, 61, made sure he went to the doctor’s office for an annual check-up.

But this year, a doctor noticed Dahm’s Prostate-Specific Antigen levels were elevated. High PSA levels are often an indicator of prostate cancer.

Before doctors could check surgically, Dahm had to undergo a full pre-op physical. During the routine, a small spot was discovered on one of Dahm’s lungs.

The news was not what he or anyone wants to hear — Dahm has lung cancer.

“It’s a little shocking at first,” he said just prior to going in for his first round of chemo and radiation treatments Thursday at the McCreery Cancer Center in Ottumwa. “I really have no pain, no symptoms.”

Whether or not smoking is the contributing factor in Dahm’s lung cancer is unknown, but according to a recent study by the State Health Registry of Iowa and the University of Iowa, a portion of southern Iowa has some of the highest rates of lung cancer incidence and mortality rates between 2000 and 2005.

Denise Conrad, the southeast Iowa staff partner with the American Cancer Society, said it’s not surprising to see where some of the highest rates of lung cancer are found on the Iowa map.

The map shows higher levels of lung cancer in both Wapello and Monroe counties as well as a good portion of Mahaska County.

Between 1996 and 2004, Monroe County was the leading county among all of Iowa’s 99 counties in terms of lung cancer incidence percentages. That number dropped to 20th in the state after information from the 2000 census was factored in.

Wapello and Mahaksa counties are No. 4 and 5 respectively in terms of the percentage of reported lung cancer cases.

Those red pockets of high lung cancer rates (see maps) are areas where there is a higher rate of smoking, blue-collarworkers, manufacturing jobs and where coal mining previously occured, Conrad said.

“And in southern Iowa, there are higher rates of radon gas,” she said.

But a vast majority of the lung cancer cases, 70-90 percent, are directly related to smoking.

But Conrad and Dr. Christopher Squier, director of the Global Health Studies Program at the U of I, said the news is good, that smoking rates are dropping in the state.

“We have been amazed at the level smoking has gone down; whereas the number of smokers in Iowa was about 23 percent six years ago. That number is now 18 percent and there is every indication the number is going down further,” Squier said.

Those numbers may have dropped even further in the past two years.

Both Conrad and Squier said it’s clear that the increase in Iowa’s cigarette tax from 36 cents to $1.36 per pack has discouraged some from smoking.

And the state’s new smoking ban that went into effect July 1 is also impacting many smokers to consider quitting, they both agreed.

Nevetheless, lung cancer is still a real concern in Iowa, even after many smokers kick the habit.

Squier said lung cancer often does not reveal itself until at least 20 years has passed by.

That was the case with Dahm who put down the cigarettes more than 20 years and is now undergoing treatment for the cancer.

Conrad said while catching lung cancer early on is critical, there is hope with newer treatments.

“We have found some new advacements with chemotherapy, radiation and drug therapy,” she said.

Dahm said he’s hopeful that the chemo and radiation will treat his cancer and he remains optimistic.

“I’m not scared. You’ve just got to deal with it,” he said. “If you get the worst results, you have to do what it takes [to get better] ... I’m not going to sit here and complain about it.”

Jeff Hutton can be reached at (641) 683-5380 or via e-mail at jeff@ottumwacourier.com.

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