SAN RAFAEL – Women in wealthy Marin County suffer one of the nation’s highest breast cancer rates, a cluster that has confounded health officials.
And women aren’t the only ones who suffer. The county has a high frequency of many other cancers, sometimes surpassing the national average.
On Saturday, about 2,000 volunteers traveled door-to-door to gather what could prove to be important data — how many residents have cancer, where they live and if they have any idea why rates have climbed so high.
“My hope now is that everybody realizes that as a community we can change our statistics,” said Judi Shils, a founder of the Marin County Cancer Project, which organized the effort.
Shils said volunteers talked to at least 50,000 people and tried to collect at least $1 per person to fund an epidemiology map of cancer incidences based on 20 years of statistics gathered by the cancer center.
But it wasn’t always easy getting people to participate.
Tina-Lise Curtis, a 41-year-old dentist who volunteered for the project, walked away from many unanswered doors Saturday. She said she wasn’t sure the survey would have a large impact, but said that as a cancer survivor she wanted to help.
“I don’t know what they’re going to gain from it. It’s a very small step,” Curtis said. “You think, ’Did we waste our time?’ I don’t think we did, someone had to do something.”
Curtis, who said her family doesn’t have a history of cancer, was diagnosed with both squamous cell carcinoma, which is a form of skin cancer, and laryngeal cancer since she moved to San Rafael with her husband David in 1988. Both cancers are in remission.
The volunteers asked residents a series of questions, ranging from age and ethnicity to family cancer history and whether they could identify any environmental factors that might contribute to the cancer rate.
Many residents Curtis talked to only offered speculation based on what they had seen in the media.
“I feel like I just found out in the last six months that it is an epidemic,” said Lisa Knutson, a longtime Marin resident who said that no one in her household has been diagnosed with cancer.
According to the Berkeley-based Northern California Cancer Center, white women living in Marin County are 45 percent more likely to develop breast cancer than women elsewhere in the country.
The researchers focused on white, non-Hispanic women because fewer than 10 cases of breast cancer are found each year in Hispanics, blacks or other populations in Marin County, which is 80 percent white.
The center’s statistics also showed that Marin men are 25 percent more likely to get cancer than other men in California.
“I’m concerned about it. There’s something wrong here,” said Frank Hanson, 81, who was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 1962. “They’ve just got to figure out what it is.”
Hanson said that he didn’t think his cancer, which has been in remission for many years, had anything to do with his 78-year residency in Marin.
While residents and researchers alike continue to search for an environmental cause, some scientists point to socio-economic factors.
Marin County boasts a per capital income more than 200 percent the U.S. average and 44 percent of its adults hold at least a bachelor’s degree. The lifestyle linked with those populations — bearing fewer children, having them later in life or taking estrogen and other hormones to alleviate the onset of menopause — may trigger cancer, some researchers believe.