News10NBC Investigates: What’s driving our cancer rates?

Jennifer Lewke
Updated: November 18, 2019 11:26 PM
Created: November 18, 2019 10:51 PM

NEW YORK (WHEC) — Does where you live increase your chances of getting cancer? State data indicates it may very well play a role.

Some of our local counties have some of the highest rates of certain cancer in all of New York State and health professionals have spent the last year trying to find out why.   


Melanie Haers was 30 years old, with a 1-month-old daughter when she had a seizure in the middle of the night and was rushed to the hospital. 

"They did a scan and the doctor walked in and said you have a tumor on the left side of your brain,” she told News10NBC back in 2018. 

No signs, no symptoms, an otherwise healthy young woman had brain cancer, “My heart is like... who is going to raise my daughter,” Melanie recalled. 

She had surgery, then chemo, then radiation, all the while thinking about how badly she wanted to have another child for her daughter’s sake. 

"She has a lot of cousins and my husband is a wonderful father but there is no bond like having a sibling and so, if I pass away, I want that connection for them,” she recalled thinking.

As rare as her situation sounds, it’s not. Maps released by the NYS Department of Health last year, break down the counties with the highest rates of different cancers. 

Monroe County has one of the highest rates of breast cancer in all of New York, Ontario County has high rates of brain, liver, skin and ovarian cancer. Rates of oral, esophageal, colon, pancreatic, laryngeal, breast, uterine, kidney and brain cancer are well above the statewide average in Wyoming County.

“I think anyone who gets cancer asks why and they search their background for reasons,” Dr. Nancy Bennett, Director of the Center for

Community Health at URMC told News10NBC when the maps were released.  

But it’s not always easy to find an answer, “Probably 30% of our health is determined by genetics, probably another 40% of our health is determined by our behaviors and probably 10-15% is caused by our environment,” Dr. Bennett said.

Since releasing the maps, the Department of Health has been drilling down in the data to try and add some context to the numbers.  

Brad Sutton is the Deputy Commissioner of Public Health and he says while the rates are high in many areas of the state, they’re not all higher than expected when it comes to the demographics of those communities and their access to proper healthcare.

He says when trying to find answers, “We looked at all known hazardous waste sites, we looked at air data, both outdoor air and indoor air, radon testing.”

But environmental risks don’t seem to be driving the numbers in Western New York. 

“Most of the general public focuses entirely on environmental risk and doesn't realize that there are other categories that define our cancer risk including our genetic make-up which we can't do anything about and our health behaviors in our lifetime,” he said.

State researchers have found that in most cases, it’s those health behaviors that seem to be driving rates of certain cancers up in certain counties. 

“Largely, tobacco behaviors are greatly contributing to the elevations of four to five different cancers… Certainly, obesity has a modest increase in certain cancers like colorectal cancer, kidney cancer, uterine cancer,” Sutton says.

Now that the state has a better understanding of what’s causing some of these cancers, what’s going to be done about it?  

“Well, we're getting back into each of these communities, in the case of Western New York, we're making an announcement of expanded grant funding for our cancer prevention in action grants,” Sutton said.

Click here to review the NYSDOH cancer maps.

Click here to search cancer incidents by specific zip codes.

Click here for information on how to quit smoking.

For more information on cancer:

National Cancer Institute

Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester

American Cancer Society

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