Why does part of the Buffalo area have high rates of cancer? That’s what state health officials are trying to figure out. WBFO’s Avery Schneider takes a closer look at how they’re handling the mystery of the cancer hotspot.
When the State Department of Health identified the hotspot on Buffalo’s eastern border, it wasn’t by chance. Researchers analyzed data from New York’s cancer registry with an online mapping tool. They found high rates of six common cancers between 2011 and 2015.
In a recent meeting at the Buffalo Museum of Science, Deputy Director of Public Health Brad Hutton talked to community members about the scope of the state’s cancer research initiative.
“So while I know that many of you are here today because you’re really concerned about the fact that we’re studying the area east of Buffalo and western Cheektowaga, you should know that there are more than 200 communities just like this one that have elevated rates of some type of cancer,” said Hutton.
But within Western New York, the cancers with elevated rates overlap mostly within the borders of the Kensington Expressway, state Thruway and Walden Avenue. This area surrounded by major roadways has long had a mix of homes and industrial manufacturing, with a rail yard just to its south.
But Hutton said the borders were chosen as a convenience to help residents understand the area being studied and provide clues to the agency.
“Merely trying to define your risk for cancer based on where you live today is really not smart,” said Hutton, “and we would recommend you not do that.”
Hutton said residents should consider risk factors like family history and unhealthy lifestyle choices.
Researchers will consider lots of information: common risk factors, air pollution from sources like highways and exposure to carcinogens at work. They’ll also consider socioeconomic status, which is generally low along Buffalo’s East Side.
“Socioeconomic status doesn’t itself, cause cancer,” said Jo Freudenheim, an epidemiology researcher with the University at Buffalo. “It’s a surrogate, as we say. It’s associated, it’s correlated with other kinds of exposures.”
Freudenheim said the causes could vary from the simple to the complex.
But when the health department does its study, it won’t be with an eye towards what’s out there now.
“We’re much more concerned about exposures that occurred five to 40 years ago,” said Hutton.
That’s because these cancers can take that long to reach a point where they can be diagnosed.
When the health department gave area residents an overview of the hotspot, they also asked for input on what might be causing it.
Michelle Phillips pointed to the former American Axle manufacturing plant on East Delavan Avenue as a site worth deeper investigation. Phillips’ husband developed kidney cancer – one of the six showing elevated rates – even though he didn’t have any of the risk factors.
“We could never figure out how in the world he would have ever gotten it,” said Phillips, “and we started thinking about his 12 years at American Axle - and and, to us, that’s the only risk factor that he had.”
Others said the state hadn’t done enough to let people know ahead of time about the study. They wondered how the agency will handle community outreach.
One resident was blunt as she asked, “How are you going to make sure the research is diverse? And that you’re going to be able to follow these people who are poor, who generally jump out of research?”
In his response, Hutton made it clear that this study will not actively seek input beyond the public meeting.
He said the agency will partner with local organizations like Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center when it hosts a community conversation at the end of the month, but there’s no plan for surveys or door-to-door outreach.
Hutton said the limitations are “mainly a function of time.”
“The aggressive time frame we’re under really dictates that we need to focus on some of our existing data sources,” said Hutton.
That time frame is part of the governor’s charge to complete the study in a year. That year began in January and Freudenheim warns that doesn’t leave much to work with.
“If they’re coming now to the communities and they’re going to be reporting back in less than six months, there’s no question that it’s not going to be a very detailed kind of report,” said Freudenheim.
Hutton was upfront about how far the research will go and said he wants to manage the public’s expectations.
“We will certainly not have all the answers when we get back. We will be transparent and we’ll share with you what we’ve looked at and the extent to which we think we’re able to explain the elevated rates of cancer, but we will more than likely also have recommendations for future study,” said Hutton.
Agency officials are expected back by the end of the year. Until then, residents are left with many of their questions unanswered.