Cancer Study Future Uncertain
by Kirk W. LeMessurier, Natick TAB Staff Writer
(From Natick TAB, February 16th, 1999, page 2; reprinted with permission)
After meeting with state and local health officials, some members of the Natick Cancer Study Task Force say the chances of completing its work are as uncertain as ever.
The task force was convened by selectmen to investigate an apparently high incidence in the past of pancreatic cancer deaths in Natick's Wethersfield area.
The town secured a $50,000 grant to do further study, but reports of infighting among some of its members and a sense by selectmen that the data did not warrant further study led the board to disband the group's charter as a town-appointed committee. The grant, which had a finite term of eligibility, expired at the end of the last legislature's term.
There was some potential for the task force's work to be completed last week as Public Health Director Roger Wade suggested the Board of Health could consider putting the final stages of the work out to public bidding.
But that became less certain as Wade said the board greeted the idea "without much enthusiasm."
"They feel the nature of the data is such that it's not
going to provide anything more useful than what we
have. It would be throwing good money after bad," Wade said.
Wade said board members felt the data did not show particularly high incidences of cancer in the Wethersfield area.
"With the exception of one brief period, the numbers we have show that Natick is remarkably like other towns (in terms of cancer rates)," Wade said.
Wade said the task force could still follow through with its plan to present the board with a written proposal describing what would be needed to complete its work.
"Anyone could bring a proposal before the board and they would listen attentively to it. It's possible they could be persuaded that something else needs to be done, but I'd say they're less than enthusiastic right now," Wade said.
Selectman Jay Ball, who served on the task force and met with state health state officials last week, shared Wade's belief that there was "most likely" not anything to worry about in Natick's cancer rates.
But Ball said he would like to be able to put people's fears to rest with even greater certainty.
"I would like somebody to be able to say to me with authority that there is no elevated risk of pancreatic cancer in the Wethersfield area, or in any other part of the town, for that matter," Ball said.
Ball said the Massachusetts Department of Public Health indicated it would consider the task force's data only after completing its own study in about a year. "I can't understand, frankly, why it would take a year to do that, but I guess they have a lot on their plate, too," he said.
MDPH has been gathering incidence data, interviewing next-of-kin of cancer victims to determine whether their habits or occupations might indicate some higher risk of developing the disease.
The task force could only use state mortality rates, which are available to the public, to chart incidents of cancer in town.
MDPH spokesman Mark Leccese said the cancer study was on the department's list of "active investigations," but would take time to complete accurately.
"A thorough scientific investigation takes time. The purpose of our interviews is to determine if we need to gather more data to help us decide where to go next," Leccese said.
Ball said the Natick task force might be able to gain funding to complete its work through the newly-established Leonard Morse Grants Panel, an $11 million fund to provide grants for public health initiatives for the town (see separate story).
"The cancer study could be exactly the kind of thing this money could be used for, but right now, I'm really not sure where we go from here," Ball said.
Task force member Tom Branham shared Ball's doubtfulness about their making progress.
"It's not really clear if anything is going to happen," Branham said, adding that the task force's use of mortality data can still be used as an "adjunct" to the study MDPH plans to complete.
Branham added that he saw the state's approach as a legitimate one, but would like to see both studies completed to make for a more thorough inquiry.
That uncertainty did not sit well with Nancy Nishanian, a Wethersfield resident who moved to Natick three years ago. Nishanian said she has been waiting for "the final word" on the cancer study since the reports began surfacing of possible higher cancers rates.
"It's not easy to make heads or tails of the reports you hear on this, and I have to say this really scares me," Nishanian said, adding, "I just wish someone could give me a final answer."
Former task force chairman A. Richard Miller said he hears from about "one or two people a week" with worries similar to Nishanian's, and he described the current situation as "unfortunate."
Miller does not accept the notion of "being sure there's not a problem."
"On the contrary, we suspect several issues that deserve more study," Miller said, likening the task force's understanding of the data to the "fuzziness" of a camera lens.
"The fuzziness of our lens, if you will, indicated we should move to the next phase of our study," Miller said.