Still more questions after public meeting on cancer along Buffalo-Cheektowaga border

Jul 20, 2018

The State Department of Health's Environmental Facilities and Cancer Map shows environmental facilities and the cases of cancer that have been diagnosed between 2011 and 2015.
Credit Environmental Facilities and Cancer Map / NYS Department of Health

The State Department of Health held a public meeting at the Buffalo Museum of Science Thursday night to discuss elevated rates of cancer along the Buffalo and Cheektowaga border. But many residents left the meeting with more questions than they came with.

The area surrounded by the Kensington Expressway, the state Thruway, and Walden Avenue has been identified as an epicenter of elevated cancer rates between 2011 and 2015. State Health Department Deputy Commissioner Brad Hutton explained the findings are based on information from the state’s cancer registry, environmental data, and a cancer mapping application.

The map identifies areas of cancer above and below the expected state average. Six different types of cancer were between 34 and 84 percent above average and showed up across areas of varying size. The area along the Buffalo-Cheektowaga border is where they all intersect.

Brad Hutton takes questions from the audience during a meeting on elevated cancer rates along the Buffalo-Cheektowaga border.
Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News

Thursday night’s meeting was intended to gain input from the public on what the study should focus on, with the idea that residents know their neighborhoods best. But because most cancers can take between five and 40 years to appear, the focus won’t be on what is impacting cancer now, but what may have impacted it in the past.

“When we look at things like smoking, we’re concerned with smoking rates twenty years ago. When we look at possible environmental exposures or occupational exposures, we’re concerned with ones that happened in the 1990s or in the 2000s or 1980s. And we’re less concerned about exposures that are occurring today,” said Hutton.

The meeting was also meant to answer some of the more common questions about cancer and address any misconceptions.

“Hopefully folks here felt satisfied that we’re really concerned for the community and we want to keep them engaged for the coming months and years ahead,” said Hutton.

Ron Rambally was among the residents who turned out for the meeting. He has lived in the Cleveland Hill neighborhood of Cheektowaga since 2001, just north of the area identified by the state. He’s seen neighbors pass away and he’s worried for his children. Rambally said the meeting left him with “some question marks.”

“If you’re going to identify something, and you’re going to see there’s some type of problem, to me it needs to inspire some kind of action. And I’m not 100 percent sure I got that coming from the meeting.”

East Side resident and cancer survivor Gina Davis says she is not surprised by the elevated levels of cancer in her community, and she’s grateful that the department of health is offering the information.

“But at the same time, we need the people who have the power to come and help us,” said Davis. “Don’t just give us this information and have all these numbers thrown out here saying, ‘We have this, and we found out that.’ Okay, now what are you going to do in the community?”

Davis wants to know what kinds of resources the health department will offer, especially in a community where she says many people don’t go to the doctor. She and fellow resident Fantah Whitt were disappointed with communication about the study, saying that spreading the word through local news media was not enough. They say there should be communication through community newspapers, elected officials, block clubs and, especially, social media.

“Your community is on Facebook,” said Whitt. “Your community is out in the street. It’s summer time. Your community is at the park. Your community is at the beach. Your community is not in the house watching the news at four o’clock.”

Hutton and officials from state agencies involved in the study took open questions during the meeting one-on-one sessions afterwards. He said the department will redouble its efforts to inform people in the weeks and months ahead as the study proceeds. By the end of 2018, they will return with results and recommendations.

More information on the cancer research initiative and a link to Thursday night's presentation is available here.