MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — South Carolina residents in rural counties were more likely to be diagnosed with breast or prostate cancer than those living in urban areas, according to data from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Overall, in South Carolina, 33,030 people were diagnosed with cancer in 2021, and 10,940 died, according to American Cancer Society estimates.

When compared to the rest of the nation, South Carolina is slightly below average in its cancer incidence rates.

While nationwide, there are 435.8 new cases each year, per 100,000 people, South Carolina has 426.5 per 100,000. Men are also more likely than women to be diagnosed with cancer, averaging 467.6 new diagnoses per 100,000 each year in South Carolina, and 396.7 for women. 

When it comes to cancer deaths, South Carolina is 15th in the U.S., with a state rate of 157.5 annual deaths per 100,000 people, compared to the nationwide rate of 149.2.

Henry Well, the executive director of the South Carolina Cancer Alliance, said men are less likely to go to a doctor, and therefore get screened, if they are feeling well.

For people in rural South Carolina, it’s even worse. Many counties don’t have a cancer center, and rural areas are less likely to have quality jobs that offer insurance or allow for paid time off to get screened, said Henry Well, the executive director of the South Carolina Cancer Alliance.

Well said those factors can lead to people having to drive 45 minutes each way to reach a primary care physician.

“Some patients don’t go for treatment because they are widowed or single, and driving to a large area scares them, and they see it as not available,” Well said, noting that for people who have to use public transportation, a screening could mean taking an entire unpaid day off of work. 

The data gave the state a 20-year look on cancer statistics for the first time, according to Well. Before, authorities had to look at how South Carolina ranked in relation to other states. That’s problematic, he said, because the demographics, economy and cultures are unique.

“In my opinion, it is not a good idea to compare ourselves against other states,” Well said. 

The report is a mixed bag of positive and negative news. Cancer deaths have decreased by 17.6% from two decades ago. However, the data also reveals that Black men are three times more likely to develop prostate cancer than white men, and Black women have a 43.5% higher chance of dying of breast cancer than white women. Black men were also more likely to develop lung cancer.

Risk factors for breast cancer can be genetic, but also include alcohol consumption and being overweight. For lung cancer, which kills more South Carolinians than any other type of cancer, smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke are the primary contributors. 

However, 51.6% of cancers are caught in the early stage in South Carolina, a statistic that makes a drastic difference in survival rates. 

Greenville County tops the charts as the best area in the state for early diagnosis, at 55% of patients. When it comes to the region where cancer is more likely to be caught in the late stage, Abbeville County was the worst, at 49.7%.

Because the statewide data includes a portion of cases that were caught at an unknown stage, rankings between areas that are more likely to catch cancer early don’t necessarily rank as the areas where the lowest number of people are diagnosed late. According to the data, Horry County is the region where providers are the least likely to catch cancer in the late stage, at 34.6%.

Many people postponed cancer screenings in the early stages of the pandemic, according to Najla Itani, an oncologist and hematologist with the Conway Medical Center Cancer Center.

The center has more than quadrupled its staff since opening in 2019. It pushes for more people to undergo screenings, and plans to start a lung cancer screening program.

Mobile mammogram units, Itani said, are especially important to offer.

“They can just hop on and get their screening mammogram done,” she said. “Those are things that make it easier and make it more commonplace.”

The center is pushing to provide more services at events, as well. Those might look like having a dermatologist at an event to do screenings, which Itani said is especially important in a beach area where more time in the sun increases the risk for skin cancer.

Not only are people underserved when it comes to being able to access oncology care, but Itani said the biggest component she’s seeing is patients who struggle to afford treatment. 

A lot of the center’s patients are also recent retirees who move to the area and are diagnosed with cancer shortly after.

Itani stresses the importance of screenings, stating that it makes a “drastic difference” in boosting survival rates.

“If it’s not caught early, then they are dealing with something that is likely to take their life if it is incurable,” she said. 

Well said there is a simple solution to increasing better outcomes.

“The biggest takeaway and the biggest thing that we can do, and it’s so unpopular, is to expand Medicaid,” he said. 

A potential expansion would extend testing to more people, he said, and be a quicker solution than building hospitals. He also said that South Carolina’s rates rank below states that have extended the federal program.

Nationwide, one in two men and one in three women will develop cancer during their lifetime, according to the DHEC 2021 State Cancer Profile.

Top ratings for the state are as follows.

Top five counties for five-year cancer diagnosis rates, per 100,000 people.

  1. Union – 518
  2. Chester – 498
  3. Colleton – 497
  4. Laurens – 482
  5. Cherokee – 481

The top five counties for five-year death rates, per 100,000 people:

  1. Lee – 219
  2. Marlboro – 203
  3. Colleton – 199
  4. Chester – 198
  5. Hampton – 196

The top five counties for five-year breast cancer diagnoses, per 100,000 people:

  1. Fairfield – 156
  2. McCormick – 153
  3. Union – 149
  4. Richland – 148
  5. Newberry – 143

The top five counties for five-year prostate diagnoses, per 100,000 people:

  1. Williamsburg – 186
  2. Lee – 164
  3. Chester – 150
  4. Sumter – 143
  5. Florence – 136