Finances can take a beating because of lost wages, medical bills and travel to and from treatments, according to Roger Wood of Ranburne. And patients must face their own mortality as they go through their treatment options, he added.
“People who have cancer are devastated in one way or another,” Wood said.
He would know. Wood was diagnosed with cancer in 2012.
Wood, then 50, went from diagnosis to surgery in just a few days. But the speed didn’t make it any less scary. He’d lost his mother and two aunts to the disease, and well knew its toll.
But Wood took his difficulties and turned them into help for others.
“God brought me through it,” Wood said. “God had a plan.”
In April, just a year after his first surgery, Wood held a fundraiser with the Cleburne County charity group Helping Every Area Resident to Succeed to set up and fund the HEARTS Cancer Relief Program. The program offers financial support to area residents battling cancer, along with volunteers who give emotional support, Wood said.
In the short time since, the program has raised thousands of dollars and used the money to help more than 30 cancer patients, according to organizers.
Higher mortality here
Many area residents likely need the help. Cancer has been the second-leading cause of death in Alabama since 1966, said Dale Quinney, information specialist for the Alabama Department of Public Health and the executive director of Alabama Rural Health Association.
Alabama’s cancer mortality rate is higher than the national average. The nation averaged 185 cancer deaths per 100,000 people from 2009 to 2011. In Alabama, mortality from cancer averaged 213.1 deaths per 100,000. Cleburne County has an even higher rate, according to Quinney, a trait it shares with many rural counties in the state.
Rural Alabama counties’ average mortality rate was 232.8 deaths per 100,000, according to Quinney. That’s 9 percent higher than the state’s urban counties from 2009 to 2011.
Rural Clay County has the third-highest cancer mortality rate of all counties in the state at 296.3 per 100,000 people, Quinney said.
He believes the increased mortality rate has to do with access to health care, behavior and environment, Quinney said. People in rural areas may have more exposure to chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides that could contain carcinogens, he said. In addition, much of the upper part of the state — including Cleburne County — has higher than normal rates of tobacco use, Quinney said. He also believes that rural areas where people have to travel long distances to get to a doctor or hospital could increase cancer mortality because it could mean that people aren’t diagnosed as quickly.
“I have absolutely no doubt that late diagnosis is one of the contributors,” Quinney said.
Setting up support
Jackie Howle, director of HEARTS, said she didn’t realize until starting the group’s cancer program how prevalent the disease is in the county.
“I never heard of so many cases of cancer in my life,” Howle said. “It’s every day.”
HEARTS raised $8,200 in April to launch the Cancer Relief Program, Howle said. It uses that money to pay rent and utility bills, or buy gas for patients to travel to treatments, she said. As of this week it has served 33 people in Cleburne and other Alabama counties and Carroll County, Ga. Because the program serves people in Carroll County HEARTS was also able to win a $5,000 grant from the Community Foundation of West Georgia. That money must be used primarily for medical expenses, Howle said.
The program requires three things of applicants: an application for the program; a letter from a cancer treatment center or doctor confirming that they are undergoing treatment for cancer; and a meeting with a member of the ministering team of cancer survivors, including Wood.
That’s worth it to the people who receive help through the program.
James Kelley, 47, Woodland has received financial help from the program a few times since his diagnosis with thyroid cancer. The program has paid his water and electric bills and gives him money to go to his treatments in Carrollton, Ga., at Tanner Health System’s Roy Richards Sr. Cancer Center. The gas to and from costs him about $25 a day and he had a stretch of 33 days traveling to the center, Kelley said.
“It put all my bills in a bind,” he said.
But just having someone to talk to who understands what he’s going through is a blessing, Kelley said. Wood checks on him regularly by phone or just dropping by, he added.
“One day, he drives up in my yard and brings in three or four bags of groceries,” Kelley said. “I am so grateful. They really have been a blessing to me and my family.”
Howle said HEARTS already is planning its second annual fundraiser for the program in April. It will be known as the “Day of Hope,’ she said.
Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.