MACHIAS, Maine — Anyone diagnosed with cancer in Washington County — about 650 people each year — must travel to Brewer or beyond for radiation. That’s two hours or more each way, five days a week for five to eight weeks.
That commitment doesn’t take into account chemotherapy, physical therapy, doctors’ visits and other related treatments.
“The major issue is transportation,” Regina Rooney, community outreach manager of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation of Maine, said Friday. “We are seeing women who have a choice between a lumpectomy, which will require frequent radiation, and a total mastectomy, or breast removal. They are choosing to remove their breasts because there is no way they can make frequent trips to Brewer.”
Rooney and dozens of other cancer patients, caregivers and service providers were gathered in Machias Friday for the fourth annual cancer conference, titled “There is Hope Here in Washington County.”
Hope may be abundant but the actual numbers are frightening. Washington County’s cancer rate is well above the rest of the state, according to the Maine Cancer Registry.
In Maine as a whole, from the years 2005 to 2007, the cancer rate per year was 528 women and 611 men per 100,000 population. For Washington County, over that same time frame, 570 women and 710 men per 100,000 residents were diagnosed each year with cancer.
Because of the high cancer rate, getting accurate information to patients is paramount, Melissa Mallock of the Regional Medical Center at Lubec said. “We may have less resources here but there are resources our patients don’t know about. That’s the real reason for the conference.”
“The best we can do at this point is provide accurate information about what services are available,” Elise Madore of the American Cancer Society said.
Michael Reisman of the Beth C. Wright Cancer Resource Center in Ellsworth, which serves both Hancock and Washington counties, said the facility hosts several programs that can assist those patients. “They need a good car, a driver, gas money, and sometimes they are too ill to make the return trip,” he said.
The Beth Wright Center, through grants from the Maine Cancer Foundation, the Maren Foundation and Maine Sea Coast Mission, can provide gas reimbursements and free motel rooms. “Since January we have spent a total of $18,000 helping 50 people,” Reisman said.
When asked what is being done to increase the level of cancer services in Washington County, Reisman shook his head. “It seems like radiation is never going to come,” he said. There are simply not enough residents in Washington County — with a countywide population of about 33,000, the same as the city of Bangor — to tip the economic scales and allow for such costly medical equipment and services to be located here.
Reisman said 80 percent of cancer victims in Washington County travel to Brewer or beyond for treatment. Washington County Cancer Action Group provides volunteer drivers for some, while others are forced to make their own arrangements.
“Calais Regional Hospital does offer some chemotherapy,” he said, adding that it would be incredibly helpful if Down East Community Hospital could reinstate its chemotherapy program, which has been absent for five years. He said some telemedicine is also available at both hospitals.
“But what we are really focusing on is better coordination of what exists,” he said. “Over the four years that we’ve held this conference, we have seen more infrastructure in place and more cooperation between services. Small steps have been taken.”
Rooney said the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation will be conducting a needs assessment next year that will look at all issues surrounding timely and accessible treatment in Washington County. “This study will inform us not just about transportation issues, but other issues as well,” she said.
During Friday’s conference, there were panel discussions by caregivers, patients and professionals. The keynote speaker, Dr. Ben Thompson, practiced medicine in Lubec for 10 years in the 1990s. He is a two-time cancer survivor and his wife is a cancer survivor. Thompson said that some of the best advice he could give to cancer patients and their families is to laugh.
“You have got to find a way to laugh, to build humor into your life,” he said. “It is so ridiculous what they do to us, so humiliating. You need to go into this with the attitude that you are going to fight, that your life is important.”