Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias Robin Richardson's name is growing more and more familiar in the Vermillion community.

She's been featured in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, and the front page of the Plain Talk.

She's inspired a small group of volunteers in the Vermillion community to circulate petitions. They hope that if they gather enough signatures, they can influence the state of South Dakota to conduct a study of childhood cancer here.

Monday night, she addressed the Vermillion City Council. She'd like them to get in on the act, too.

"I want Vermillion to be known as a town that protects children," she told the council.

She believes that the children in the Vermillion area are more prone to be diagnosed with cancer than children who reside in other areas of the country. Her basis for that conclusion? Seven children have been diagnosed with cancer in the Vermillion community since 1992.

There's no doubt that Richardson's efforts are sincere. Her sincerity, however, shouldn't be looked at as something that grants her automatic immunity from the cold, hard facts of the real world.

Fact: Cancer overall is the second leading cause of death in both South Dakota and the U.S. as a whole and represents many diseases, not just one. The seven Vermillion area children reported in the local media as having cancer from 1992-1999 were diagnosed with six different types of cancer.

Fact: A review of Clay County child deaths since 1985 and three similar counties in South Dakota determined that Clay County had no more cancer deaths than the three control counties.

Fact: A comparison of overall cancer incidence rates (new cases in a geographic area in a select unit of time divided by the population at risk) found Clay County cancer incidence rates for 1992-1996 were lower than the South Dakota rates, which were lower than the U.S. average.

Fact: A comparison of overall cancer mortality (type of death in a geographic area in a select unit of time over all deaths) found cancer mortality in Clay County for 1992-1996 was lower than for South Dakota, which was slightly above the national average.

This information first appeared on this page three weeks ago in a guest commentary written by Doneen Hollingsworth, the South Dakota Secretary of Health.

I've found myself a bit troubled as I've listened to Richardson explain that the petition drive she began last summer is based on cold, hard facts, too.

I fear that Richardson may innocently be misusing much of the statistical information that she's gathered in the months that she's been involved with this project.

She has gathered national statistical rates for the types of childhood cancers diagnosed here. She presented them to the Vermillion City Council Monday.

Her stats, I fear, could easily be found to have little foundation upon close scrutiny. Richardson is forming many of her state cancer rate conclusions on a list from the Make-A-Wish Foundation that simply states the types of afflictions of South Dakota children that have been granted wishes in recent years.

She takes the number of state-wide cases and compares them to numbers she's gathered from an entirely different source that give the national rates for certain types of childhood cancer diagnoses.

The numbers, she says, are alarmingly high.

But are they really too high? Isn't comparing state statistics to national statistics (especially from two or more different sources) rather like comparing apples to oranges?

A better approach would be to determine childhood cancer rates by adding South Dakota's figures for a certain type of childhood cancer to the figures of every other state to determine the true nature of national childhood cancer rates.

Anyone who meets Richardson can immediately sense that she cherishes children. That, in part, has played a big role in the gathering of 1,100 signatures in the community. Her concern is to be commended.

But once again, cold hard facts rear their ugly head. Despite all of the good intentions of volunteers in the Vermillion community, the state Department of Health has concluded that a cancer investigation is unwarranted here.

Richardson's efforts aren't in vain, however. We all should be more aware of what causes cancer, and what we can do to help prevent it.

She's certainly helped us become more aware.

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