Data like health rankings and smoking rates can paint a broad, unsettling picture about cancer. But health leaders say they’re just pieces of the puzzle to understanding cancer. Every individual is different.
"The one thing you cannot do is you can't take the results of your analysis of counties (and claim) an individual that lives in 'County A' is more likely to get cancer than 'County B,' because you're not talking about individuals," said Kyle Garner, a cancer epidemiologist for the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Susan Bishop of Decatur was diagnosed with breast cancer nine years ago. Eventually she learned that her cancer had little or nothing to do with environmental factors. Doctors ordered an analysis of her DNA and found a known gene mutation that can lead to aggressive, rapid-developing breast cancer.
That revelation led family members to take a genetic test. Bishop's sister, Andrea Sheffer, elected to have preventative surgery to mitigate the risk of ever developing breast cancer after her results came back positive.
Sheffer is a nurse, something she said informed her decision, and her story serves as an example of how education and know-how can affect both cancer incidence and especially mortality rates.
Researchers have investigated for years whether residents who live farther away from hospitals and health care facilities influences outcomes in their health. Rural counties like DeWitt, which has one hospital, rank relatively low in county health rankings by Robert Wood Johnson, a philanthropy group that studies health. But it still ranked higher than Macon County, which has two hospitals and primary care for many low-income people provided by Crossing Healthcare.
Rural residents often need to drive longer distances to make doctors' appointments, and sometimes even farther away to see specialists who are often tied to major hospitals and medical campuses. Those could be in a population center miles or hours away.
It’s not clear whether having access to more doctors and hospitals keeps people from getting cancer. But health officials say it could mean that those diagnosed with cancer live longer as a result.
The reason? If it’s hard to go to the doctor, people may put it off until they know something is wrong. By then, it may be too late.
"Unfortunately, sometimes we'll see people who don't have good access to primary care ... often don't show up until they have symptoms or more advanced cancers," said said Dr. Renata Moore, a radiation oncologist who sees patients at both HSHS St. Mary's Cancer Care Center and the DMH Cancer Care Institute in Decatur.