High breast cancer rate may reflect culture


    By Julie Cunningham

    Utah County health quirks may contribute to a higher breast cancer death rate, but may also contribute to a lower occurrence of other cancers.

    “The breast cancer death rate in Utah County women is slightly higher than the state average,” said Dr. Joseph Miner, Utah County health department executive director.

    For every 100,000 women in Utah County, there are an average of one and one-third more deaths from breast cancer occur per year than the state average. Utah County ranks eighth of 12 counties in the state in breast cancer deaths, Miner said.

    This could be because fewer women in Utah County receive mammograms and conduct breast self-examinations, Miner said.

    According to a statewide survey, 55.4 percent of Utah County women received a mammogram. In the rest of Utah, 61.3 percent of women received mammograms.

    Though Miner said he did not know the exact reason for this, he speculates it may have to do with the modesty of Utah County women.

    “People are possibly embarrassed to (get examined), and that may explain a little bit,” he said. “Or they may for another reason think they are at lesser risk than the general population, or they are too busy taking care of large families to get themselves examined.”

    Miner thinks this modesty or embarrassment may be connected to the emphasis The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints places on modesty.

    First pregnancy at a younger age decreases the risk for breast cancer, Miner said. Since LDS women tend to have more children and have them at an earlier age, their risk for breast cancer should be lower. However, this is not true in Utah County, even though the percentage of LDS women is high, he said.

    Although the prevalent LDS culture in Utah County may be inadvertently contributing to more breast cancer deaths, it has helped decrease the death rates for other types of cancer, Miner said.

    “Utah, in general, has much lower cancer and heart disease rates than the national rates because there is a lot less smoking and alcohol use,” Miner said. “The LDS culture has a large influence on this.”

    Chuck Wiggins, director of Utah Cancer Registry, says there are other religions besides The Church of Jesus Christ that abstain from smoking and drinking, such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

    Members of the Adventist Church have a lower risk of cancers related to smoking and drinking, Wiggins said.

    The Adventist Church also largely practices vegetarianism, which has lowered its members” rate of colon cancer to half of the nationwide rate, Wiggins said.

    “When you cook meat, a carcinogenic chemical called nitrosamine is formed, which has been linked to colon cancer,” Wiggins said.

    Vegetarians also eat more green, leafy vegetables, which contain vitamins and anti-oxidants, he said.

    “These are things that actually might help to detoxify the carcinogens in our diet,” Wiggins said. “So vegetarians in the Adventist Church might have lower cancer rates because of the fact that they”re not eating meat and are eating these vegetables that help fight off cancer.”

    Smoking and heavy alcohol use are major risk factors for many cancers and diseases, including cardiovascular disease, lung disease and liver disease, Miner said.

    Thirteen percent of Utah adults smoke, compared to 22 percent of U.S. adults in 2000, according to a report released by the Utah Department of Health.

    “Utah County is one of the healthiest counties in the country,” Miner said. “In every health status indicator, we”re one of the top two health department jurisdictions in the state, out of 12 jurisdictions, except for breast cancer.”

    Overall, Utah has 15 percent to 20 percent lower breast cancer rates than the rest of the country, Wiggins said.

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