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Why lower North Philadelphia has a deadly cancer problem

Philadelphia has a higher cancer incidence rate than any of the other 10 biggest cities in America and the second-highest cancer rate in Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia in 2012, the latest year for which the Philadelphia Department of Public Health has data, cancer killed 3,248 Philadelphians, more than anything else besides heart disease, which killed 3,252 Philadelphians.

But not all neighborhoods have the same problems. In the three years the Department of Public Health has released data on cancer mortality rates for distinct areas of the city, Lower North Philly has ranked the highest each time, with a rate about 25 percent higher than the city’s overall mortality rate. Here are the reasons why Lower North Philadelphia has a deadlier cancer problem than the rest of the city and what can be done about it.

How the Lower North Philly mortality rate compares

Cancer mortality rates are measured by annual deaths per 100,000 people in the population, with adjustments for age. From 2010 to 2012, the cancer mortality rate for Lower North Philly has been 251.3, 297.7 and 259.1. The city overall had cancer mortality rates of 196.1, 216.2 and 210.5. The Department of Public Health’s planning district for Center City, just below Lower North Philly, had a mortality rate of 166.3 in 2012.

Why the rate is so high

Giridhar Mallya, director of policy and planning for the Department of Public Health, said three major reasons are causing the high rate of mortality.

Smoking and obesity: Mallya said about 40 percent of cancers are attributable to smoking and obesity. “Lower North Philly has some of the highest rates of smoking and obesity,” Mallya said.

A high percentage of minorities: Lower North Philly is predominantly black, with a significant Hispanic population. “Even if there’s the same level of cancer incidence,” Mallya said, “racial and ethnic minorities die at a higher rate.”

Low screening rates: Compared to the rest of the city, not many residents in Lower North Philly get regularly screened for breast cancer or colon cancer. The American Cancer Society says that nearly half of cancer deaths can be prevented by regular screening and lifestyle changes.

It’s getting a little better

Mallya said the increases and decreases for Lower North Philly’s mortality rate the last couple of years are not really relevant. But compared to the 80s and 90s and even 10 years ago, Lower North Philly and the rest of the city has seen improvement in their cancer mortality rates. The main reason, said Mallya, is likely lower cancer incidence rates in general from a decrease in smoking since the 70s and 80s and more screening. Though Lower North Philly lags behind the rest of the city in each of those categories, it’s better off than it used to be.

The Department of Public Health is trying to help, including by helping doctors

The Department of Public Health generally does citywide initiatives, rather than focus on certain communities, such as Lower North Philly. Examples of these initiatives include ads geared toward getting people to quit smoking in subway stations or bus shelters. They’ll also have radio ads on stations the Department believes will be listened to by the segments of Philadelphians most likely to smoke.

The Department does forge partnerships with communities sometimes. Recently, it started an education program for primary care doctors so they can better know how to treat people’s smoking addictions.

“We know most doctors want to help patients quit, but they’re confidence is really low,” Mallya said. “So we have targeted primary care doctors in lower income neighborhoods to help them out.”

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