AUGUSTA, Maine — On Friday, a state commission to study cancer in Maine held its second of four scheduled meetings to gather information for a report that could include legislative proposals to fight the disease.
A nearly five-hour meeting may not sound like a career highlight, but for one lawmaker on the commission, it’s a victory borne from years of personal tragedy.
Rep. Paul McGowan, a first-term Democrat from Cape Neddick, proposed the commission in the last session and — with the help of House Majority Whip Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan — successfully fought a gubernatorial veto to see his proposal succeed where dozens of others failed.
Before he was a lawmaker, McGowan lost several family members and friends to the disease.
It started in 1999, when his mother-in-law died of cancer, he said. Two years later, his wife, Shirley McGowan, was diagnosed with a rare form of uterine cancer. Despite the “excellent care” his wife received, the disease eventually spread to her lungs. She died 11 months after she was diagnosed, in October 2002.
A year and a half later, McGowan lost a close friend to the disease, he said. In 2005, his sister-in-law died of bladder cancer. Then another sister in-law last year. This time, it was lung cancer.
More recently, two of his nieces have undergone treatment for breast cancer, he said.
“It’s been just devastating,” he said. “The problem is, I have a daughter who lives in a reality that she has lost four people, on one side of her family, all to cancer. Then to have two of my nieces experience breast cancer, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, when is my number up?’”
McGowan’s story is tragic in its scale. But with Maine’s cancer rate among the highest in the nation — about 8,000 Mainers are diagnosed each year, and more than 3,000 die of complications from the disease — it’s safe to say most Mainers’ lives have been touched, in one way or another, by the disease.
The lawmaker said that, for that reason, cancer is one issue that has resonated in his own community.
Last year, when McGowan was out knocking on doors, he was greeted at one home by an elderly couple. The man told McGowan that his 4-year-old grandson had recently been diagnosed with pediatric cancer. The distraught grandfather told McGowan that he’d asked lawmakers to look into Maine’s efforts to fight cancer and had little luck.
So he asked McGowan if he’d focus on the disease if elected to the Legislature.
“So I made it my task to make some phone calls and investigate that,” McGowan said Thursday. “In that process was the first time I learned that Maine had one of the highest cancer rates in the country.”
McGowan co-chairs the panel he created — it’s called the Commission to Study the Incidence and Mortality Related to Cancer — with Sen. Colleen Lachowicz, D-Waterville. He said the goal is to tackle the “low-hanging fruit” of cancer prevention — smoking, nutrition and obesity.
According to a Harvard study in 1996, 60 percent of cancer deaths were attributable to tobacco use or lifestyle problems such as poor diet or obesity.
On Friday, Jeff Bennett, a Portland survivor of male breast cancer and activist with the American Cancer Society, told the panel that statistic means there’s a lot that can be done to fight the disease, even in the absence of a cure.
“We could cut in half the number of people who died from the disease if we just apply what we already know,” about how tobacco, obesity and poor nutrition increase the risk for cancer, he said.
In Maine, more than 750,000 adults aren’t eating the minimum recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, said Colleen Doyle, director of nutrition at the American Cancer Society. Furthermore, about 450,000 Maine adults don’t get enough exercise and nearly 675,000 are overweight or obese.
In other words, there’s room for improvement.
“This is the No. 1 cause of death in Maine,” McGowan said. “And we can do something about it.”
The commission will meet twice more, on Nov. 21 and Dec. 6, before compiling and submitting a report to the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Health and Human Services.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.