Healthcare: Tracking Cancer Data

  • Article by: NANCY GIGUERE , Star Tribune Sales and Marketing
  • Updated: December 2, 2009 - 11:48 AM

Cancer registrars collect, organize and analyze data used by clinicians, researchers and epidemiologists.

The most common cause of cancer-related death is lung cancer... Overall, cancer death rates are higher in men than women... Smoking is a risk factor for throat cancer... The drug tamoxifen is effective for certain kinds of breast cancer.

Data such as this guides the work of clinicians, researchers and epidemiologists in the field of oncology. But before they can use this data, it has to be collected, organized and analyzed. This is the job of the cancer registrar. "Registrars are really the unsung heroes in the fight against cancer," says Sara Holton, who coordinates the cancer registry at Mayo Clinic (

Creating A Complete Picture

Registrars abstract data from medical records and enter it into a specialized information system called a cancer registry. Every detail is captured: tissue type and size, involvement of lymph nodes, stage of cancer at diagnosis, treatment and results. "We create a picture of the patient's cancer from diagnosis through treatment," Holton says.

This information is reported to Minnesota Department of Health Cancer Surveillance System, which combines data received from registries throughout the state into a central registry and reports this aggregate information to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Education And Career Outlook

Some cancer registrars enter the field with an associate degree in health information technology. Others combine a two-year degree in another health-related field with on-the-job training. A few complete two-year degrees in cancer information management, but such programs are still rare.

"The incidence of cancer is higher in an aging population, and clinicians are getting better at finding it," Holton says. That means registrars are in demand. Yet according to the National Cancer Registrars Association (, 40 percent of current registrars will likely retire within the next decade.

"This is a rewarding job that doesn't involve direct patient care," Holton says. "Our work really makes a difference."

Nancy Giguere is a freelance writer from St. Paul who has written about healthcare since 1995.

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