2009.07.11 – Cutting to the chase on cancer cluster


July 11, 2009

Cutting to the chase on cancer cluster

“Everything gives you cancer/There’s no cure, there’s no answer.”

That was the chorus to the song “Cancer”, performed by Joe Jackson (the British singer and songwriter, not “Shoeless” Joe of the Black Sox baseball scandal, nor the father of the late self-proclaimed King of Pop). It appeared on his 1982 album, Night and Day.

The song has a catchy Latin beat, and I couldn’t help thinking of it this week as the public health forum approached concerning the rare blood cancer polycythemia vera. The session was held at the Tamaqua Area School District auditorium..

The forum, sponsored by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), presented an overview into research into polycythemia vera, which has been discovered in an alarming, disproportionate rate in a tri-county area of Carbon, Schuylkill and Luzerne Counties.

A cluster of cancer patients with the polycythemia vera condition has been discovered along Ben Titus Road in Still Creek, Rush Township. That is in proximity of the Still Creek Reservoir, the main water supply for the Tamaqua area.

The infamous McAdoo Associates Superfund site, where toxic chemicals were once poured into the mountain, is also nearby.

Simply put, polycythemia vera results in the body producing too many red blood cells, which carry oxygen in the bloodstream.

The question is, what has caused this condition to crop up in this area?

U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, himself a cancer victim, has helped appropriate $5.5 million to further research this disease. One such avenue that is being funded is an epidemiological study at Drexel University.

Dr. Arthur. L. Frank, a professor of public health at Drexel, is involved with the polycythemia vera study. “This is a disease of no known cause, but there are some known factors,” Dr. Frank said.

One potential indicator has been the discovery of a genetic mutation, referred to as the JAK2 marker, that has been discovered in 95 percent of polycythemia vera patients. Another factor seems to be that the risk increases with age, particularly for those aged 40 and older, as well as exposure to certain elements.

While it’s not known if JAK2 has a causal effect and always leads to polycythemia vera, the ATSDR states that many experts believe people who test positive for this genetic marker could do so for a number of years before exhibiting symptoms of the disease.

With that in mind, the ATSDR and the Pennsylvania Department of Health are offering free public health screenings for the JAK2 marker during the first two weeks of August, from Aug. 3-6 and Aug. 10-13, at three locations, including Hazleton General Hospital’s O&E Building, the Schuylkill Mall Community Room, and the gym at St. Jerome Regional School, Tamaqua.

In order to be eligible, residents must have lived in the tri-county area for at least the past year, according to Dr. Kenneth Orloff, who is conducting the screenings.

Orloff said that while there is no cure for polycythemia vera at present, there are treatments that will delay the symptoms. Frank mentioned the taking of excess blood from patients to offset the sludging of the bloodstream.

The screenings involve a blood test. For anyone who would test positive for JAK2, Orloff recommended they follow up with their family physicians.

Dr. Peter Baddick of Tamaqua, who has been pressing for answers to the polycythemia vera epidemic in the area, felt a Complete Blood Count test should be given, but admitted the JAK2 screening will at least “cut to the chase”.

Those interested in getting the screening should call 1-877-525-4860 for an appointment.

Meanwhile, Frank said research into a cause will continue, looking at environmental and genetic factors. “There is enormous potential here that, if we can find a cause or series of causes, years from now, we can have less PV,” he said.

Still, the suspicions persist for residents, particulary with a former toxic chemical dump nearby. “They should check the water supply,” stated Baddick flatly.

Hopefully, someday we can change the lyrics to Joe Jackson’s song to our benefit.