Relay for Life

Debbie Jeffreys and her grandson, Kaleb Fletcher, walked the survivor’s lap together at a previous Limestone County Relay for Life event. This year's Relay kick off is set for Thursday, while Relay for Life will be Friday, May 8.

Researchers on Wednesday reported the largest-ever one-year decline in the U.S. cancer death rate, and Limestone County's Relay for Life coordinator couldn't be happier.

“My goal is to work myself out of a job,” said Cherry Hammonds with a laugh. “I'm looking forward to a world where being a cancer survivor is easier.”

Hammonds, who works for the American Cancer Society, is inviting all Limestone Countians to the annual kickoff meeting for Relay for Life. The event is 6 to 7 p.m. Thursday in the community room of First National Bank at 1880 U.S. 72, Athens.

This year, Relay for Life is celebrating its 35th birthday, so Hammonds said Thursday's meeting would have a birthday party atmosphere. She said about 25 teams normally sign up to participate in the annual Limestone County Relay for Life, but she wants 35 teams this year.

“Relay for Life is one of the larger community fundraisers for the American Cancer Society, but a lot of people think it's just a run or walk because they hear 'Relay,'” she said. “It's really just people getting together and raising money for a good cause.”

Money raised each year by Relay teams goes to the American Cancer Society for cancer research.

This year's Relay is Friday, May 8, at the Athens Sportsplex. The location may change depending on rain, which has forced a few recent Relay events indoors.

“In Athens, we have a great amount of people and we have a lot of church teams and neighborhood teams,” Hammonds said. “We want to extend it to the entire Limestone community, including the outlying areas (of the county).”

She said just about everyone either knows someone whose life has been touched by cancer or they themselves are a cancer survivor. She said even if people don't volunteer with Relay, there are a multitude of cancer resources available, from educational material to free wigs for those going through chemotherapy.

Those seeking help or other information should call the ACS cancer helpline at 800-227-2345.

Falling death rates

The overall cancer death rate has been falling about 1.5% a year since 1991. It fell 2.2% from 2016 to 2017, according to the new American Cancer Society report. That’s the largest drop ever seen in national cancer statistics going back to 1930, said Rebecca Siegel, the lead author.

“It’s absolutely driven by lung cancer,” which accounts for about a quarter of all cancer deaths, she said. Take lung cancer out of the mix, and the 2017 rate drop is 1.4%, she added.

Government researchers previously reported a slightly lower drop in the cancer death rate for the same period. The Cancer Society calculates the death rate differently. On Wednesday, it said the decline was larger — and record-setting.

Most lung cancer cases are tied to smoking, and decades of declining smoking rates led to falling rates of lung cancer illnesses and deaths.

But the drop in deaths seems to have been accelerated by recent lung cancer treatment advances, Siegel said.

Experts mainly credit advances in treatment. Topping the list are refinements in surgery, better diagnostic scanning, and more precise use of radiation.

They also celebrate the impact of newer drugs. Genetic testing can now identify specific cancer cell mutations, which allow more targeted therapy using newer pharmaceuticals that are a step beyond traditional chemotherapy.

“It’s an exciting time,” said Dr. Jyoti Patel, a Northwestern University lung cancer expert.

Even patients with late-stage cancers are surviving for several years — rather than months — after treatment starts, she said. “That was very, very uncommon a decade ago,” she said.

New immunotherapy drugs could accelerate the death rate decline, Patel said.

Cancer Society researchers also found:

• The overall cancer death rate fell by nearly 30% from 1991 through 2017;

• Death rates from one type of skin cancer dropped even more dramatically than lung cancer — falling 7% a year recently. That decline in melanoma patients is attributed to drugs that came on the market about nine years ago;

• Declines in the death rates from prostate, breast and colon cancer are slowing, for a range of reasons; and

• The rising liver cancer death rate seems to have leveled off somewhat. That may be related to better treatment of hepatitis C infections, which are tied to about 25% of liver cancer cases, Siegel said.

— Associated Press reporter Mike Stobbe contributed to this report.

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