MACHIAS, Maine — “Cancer isn’t fair,” former Gov. Angus King told cancer survivors, caregivers and health care providers during a conference on cancer care and treatment Friday.
But in keeping with the conference’s theme of hope, King, who was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in 1974 when he was 29, added, “It is not a death sentence. Millions have survived this disease.”
Friday’s event at the Lee Pellon Center featured a variety of speakers, including cancer survivors and their caregivers, and drew representatives from nearly a dozen local, state and national organizations as well as from hospitals and hospices around Washington County.
The county has the highest rates of teen and adult smoking and of cancer in the state. It also has the highest cancer mortality rate among counties in Maine, which already ranks high among states in percentage of deaths attributed to the disease each year.
King, who addressed the gathering of nearly 150 by video from his home in Brunswick, noted that during his term in office, the doubling of taxes on cigarettes brought about a dramatic decrease in smoking among teenagers. “It’s one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of,” he said.
King stressed the importance of frequent check-ups and of supportive family and friends for those who have cancer. He added that caregivers need support too as they struggle with their own emotions over having a loved one with a serious illness.
Speaker Tina Bridgham, 52, of East Machias lamented that although she had stopped smoking 27 years ago, she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006 and given six months to a year to live. With chemotherapy treatments, the tumor went into remission, but the cancer returned recently, metastasizing into her brain.
“Lung cancer is epidemic in young women who have never smoked,” she said near tears. With adequate treatment so lacking in Washington County and having to travel so far for treatment, she said, it is hard to be optimistic.
But she also stressed the importance of support groups and said that people who struggle alone miss much in their effort to survive.
Speaker Christie Bryant, a board member of Lubec’s Regional Medical Center, reported that there is an effort to bring telemedicine techniques to cancer patients Down East. Under the leadership of Dr. Thomas Openshaw, an oncologist at Cancer Care of Maine in Bangor, as many as thirteen locations in Washington County soon may be able to provide virtual visits and consultations to patients by computer.
“Your whole perspective in life changes when you’re told you have cancer,” said Marianne Moore, a 27-year survivor of cervical cancer who is a Calais City councilor now running for mayor. The fear and stress of the diagnosis can make recovery difficult, she said, but a survivor “is someone who will not accept defeat,” so one must remain focused on healing.
“Anger and denial are natural reactions to a cancer diagnosis but must be overcome,” said Linda Milenkovic of Eastport, who learned in early 2006 that she had pancreatic cancer, which has a mortality rate of 98 percent. “There are no guarantees in life, so we need to laugh, to share, to love while we’re here.”
Susan Rowan, executive director of the Maine Cancer Foundation in Portland which funded Friday’s conference in Machias, reported that last year her organization awarded $466,000 in research grants and $48,000 in education and support to individuals and groups in Maine.
A panel of doctors addressed the importance of good patient-doctor communication during cancer treatment. Risk management, prevention and screenings are important, Dr. Robert Abrams of Lubec said, but so too are support, long-term follow-up, and proper end-of-life-care.
Retired oncologist Dr. Bill Horner, who practiced at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor from 1989 to 2007, agreed that meeting the emotional needs of patients is tantamount in treatment, so that cancer survivors feel they are in control. Horner, who himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer 2½ years ago, said he has been on both sides of the disease.
He emphasized the need for optimism, and said what gives him hope is that, “we are on the verge of a most exciting period in medical advances” that include gene testing, new therapies and environmental research to root out some of the causes of cancer.