Cancer remains the leading cause of death in Maine and is killing Mainers at a higher rate than elsewhere in the country.

Cancer was responsible for about a quarter of all deaths in Maine, or 3,100 fatalities, in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available.

Because Maine’s population is more than 90 percent white and cancer rates vary by ethnicity, the Maine Annual Cancer report for 2012 compared Maine’s death rate from cancer to the rate for whites nationally. In Maine, the age-adjusted mortality rate from all forms of malignant cancer was 186.3, compared with 174.9 among whites nationally.

“We believe a lot of it has to do with lifestyle and a lot of geographic barriers to health care in the upper part of the state,” said Dr. Sheila Pinette, state health officer. “People not eating healthy or taking care of themselves and smoking.”

The report identifies female breast, prostate, lung and colorectal cancers as the top four cancers in Maine.

Cancer emerged as a leading cause of death in 2004, and overtook heart disease as medical interventions for cardiovascular problems, such as surgeries and medications for high blood pressure, advanced and kept people alive longer, Pinette said.

Heart disease was responsible for 21 percent of all deaths in Maine in 2009, followed by chronic lower respiratory disease, stroke and unintentional injury, which includes car accidents, poisonings and drug overdoses. A catchall category of “all other causes,” accounted for 30 percent of all deaths.

Maine will record an estimated 9,000 new cases of cancer in 2012, including 1,340 new cases of lung cancer and 1,170 new cases of breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

“Maine’s cancer incidence rate is high in part due to our aging population,” said Cheryl Tucker, state vice president of health initiatives for the American Cancer Society. Maine is one of just seven states where the median age is over 40, she said.

But while age is a factor in Mainers developing cancer, 75-85 percent of all cancer diagnoses stem from preventable risk factors such as smoking, diet, exercise, obesity and sun exposure, Tucker said.

Both Tucker and Pinette stressed healthy habits and regular screenings as key to cancer prevention and detection.

“The earlier you catch cancer — breast and prostate and lung — the better your survival rate will be,” Pinette said. “Colon cancer is a preventable cancer.”

People should be screened for colon cancer at age 50, she said.

A healthy diet and exercise haven’t been shown to directly guard against some forms of cancer, but are believed to play a role, Pinette said.

Regular visits with a primary care doctor are key in the fight against the disease, she said.

“If you’re having signs and symptoms, especially of cancer, you have to make sure that you’re going in and talking to your physician,” Pinette said.

Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...