Study Tracks Cancer Rates in South Carolina

Charleston, SC—The South Carolina Cancer Registry, a collaborative project between the CDC and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, is expected to release a 10-year study tracking cancer trends later this month.

The registry, which was formed 15 years ago, is completing its study of cancer rates, deaths and survivals from 1996—2005. The study also detected a cluster of mesothelioma cases in the Rosemont community in North Charleston.

Mesothelioma, a rare but aggressive cancer which most commonly affects the pleura surrounding the lungs, is linked to asbestos exposure. Since asbestos was widely used in the shipbuilding industry during the two world wars, Navy personnel or shipyard workers are especially at risk for this type of cancer.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is lightweight and extremely resistant to heat, fire, electricity and other chemical and environmental damage. It is easily woven into fabric or incorporated into building materials, like spray-on insulation. Yet when it is disturbed through manufacture or installation, the mineral releases microscopic fibers into the air. Without proper precautions, workers can breathe in these fibers; they then become lodged in the lungs and other organs.

Of the 19 people diagnosed with mesothelioma in the Charleston area in 1996-1997, 12 reportedly worked in naval shipyards.

This trend is in keeping with other studies’ findings, which show an unusually high rate of mesothelioma cases along the U.S. East Coast, where shipyards and Naval bases are concentrated.

In the cancer study conducted by the South Carolina registry, statistics indicated that just over 80 new cases of lung and bronchus cancer would have been expected. Instead, 130 cases were diagnosed during the period of the study. And although, again according to statistics, 66 people should have died from these cancers, there were over 100 fatalities.

Mesothelioma is particularly egregious because it has a long latency period, often not manifesting symptoms until years or even decades after the initial exposure to asbestos. Even when symptoms do appear, they can mimic the symptoms of other, more common illnesses, such as colds and flu or pneumonia. Although mesothelioma, like most cancers, is more easily treatable if detected early, it’s often not diagnosed until the late stages, at which point patients have a very short life expectancy.