Rural Iowans die from cancer at higher rate than urban counterparts

IOWA CITY — New research shows rural Iowans get cancer less often than their urban counterparts but die from it more frequently.

Several factors are at play. Breast cancer is more prevalent in urban populations in Iowa than in rural ones, and there is a higher rate of colorectal and lung cancer in rural populations.

Despite the different types and rates of cancer across the state, Mary Charlton, a professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health, said her research shows rural people die from the disease more than urban people do, often because they lack access to screening and treatment.

“It’s really difficult for rural hospitals to offer comprehensive cancer-care services simply because of the volume,” she said. “It’s really hard to recruit providers out to those areas.”

Charlton said traveling to larger areas to get cancer care is difficult for rural residents and often prevents them from getting the care they need. She leads a 650-member consortium of public health professionals and researchers working to address cancer cases in Iowa with the goal of controlling the factors that cause it in both rural and urban populations.

Charlton said the consortium is working to close the access and treatment gap by extending the resources of larger cancer centers to community hospitals in rural areas, mostly through virtual visits during which cancer patients have access to oncologists in larger cities.

“In conjunction with their local provider, so it’s not like it’s just a second opinion of somebody looking over their shoulder,” she said. “If somebody wants to be assured they’re getting the best care possible, but safely stay locally, this is kind of a way to do it.”

Charlton is working to develop a network of rural Iowa hospitals that will also collaborate with one another. The Iowa Cancer Affiliation Network is made up of hospitals across the state and often works with oncologists from the University of Iowa.