Guest column: Colon cancer screenings will save lives

March is National Colon Cancer Awareness Month and an opportunity to bring attention to potentially lifesaving actions people can take. This year, the American Cancer Society estimates that 132,700 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in the U.S.

In many households, the topic of cancer is uncomfortable to talk about — especially colorectal cancer. It is time that we take responsibility for our health and take advantage of available screening programs. It is no longer appropriate to delay action because a cancer may be found. It is time to find cancer in its early stage and eradicate it.

Colon cancer is the nation’s second-leading cause of death for cancers affecting both men and women. However, it is also one of the most preventable and successfully treated cancers if diagnosed early. The five-year survival rate is around 90 percent for colorectal cancers caught in their earliest stage. It is a particularly deadly cancer because there usually are no symptoms in the most treatable stages.

Major strides have been made with colorectal screening rates in the U.S., but we can do better. The American Cancer Society recommends that if you are age 50 and older, it is important to take action and get screened with either a colonoscopy or a fecal occult blood test. For the two tests to be effective, the colonoscopy is recommended every 10 years, while the FOBT is an easy annual test which does not involve a blood draw.

The American Cancer Society’s goal is to have at least 80 percent of adults age 50-74 screened by 2018. As of 2012, approximately 68 percent of Washingtonians have been screened. While this rate is slightly higher than the U.S. average of 65 percent, thousands still need to have potentially lifesaving screenings. As one component of the Affordable Care Act, screenings are included in health insurance policies as a benefit.

In 2015, The American Cancer Society, The Tri-Cities Cancer Center together with Kadlec Medical Center, Lourdes Health Network, Trios Health and the Tri-Cities Community Health Center are working together to raise awareness about screening for colon cancer. Starting in March and throughout the coming year, these health care providers will be encouraging residents to get screened via a fecal occult blood test or a colonoscopy. We will follow this emphasis throughout the year as we work together to improve the health of our community.

In support of this initiative, the American Cancer Society and Walgreens teamed up to award the Tri-Cities Community Health Center a $50,000 grant for the Colorectal Cancer Screening Project. The American Cancer Society’s “Community Health Advocates implementing Nationwide Grants for Empowerment and Equity” aka CHANGE grant program helps individuals prevent or find cancer early.

The program builds community capacity to implement proven methods that increase cancer screening rates and improve health within communities experiencing an unequal cancer burden. Through the more than 300 CHANGE grants nationwide as of January, more than 889,035 individuals have received outreach, education and navigation with more than 357,757 actual screenings.

For 20 years, the Tri-Cities Cancer Center has promoted prevention and early detection for many types of cancer, including breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer and skin cancer. They will be encouraging residents again this year to participate in this colon cancer screening program. Through generous community donations made to the Tri-Cities Cancer Center Foundation, this colon cancer screening consisting of a fecal occult blood test has been made available at no cost.

In addition to screening, you can reduce your risk of colon cancer with healthy behaviors. Staying at a healthy weight; getting regular exercise; eating a healthy diet that is low in red and processed meat and high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains; limiting alcohol intake and not smoking are all important ways to reduce risk. Colon cancer survivors should follow the same recommendations to help reduce additional risks.

As volunteer chair of the American Cancer Society’s 12 State Great West Division Board of Directors and a volunteer for more than 30 years, I have watched the goals for preventing, detecting and treating cancer become more and more aggressive. The quality of research funded by the American Cancer Society has been shown by the 47 Nobel Laureates who received ACS funding. No other charity can make this claim.

Recently, I was privileged to hear a report from a researcher who received an ACS grant early in his career and now is part of an ACS funded research consortium of several independent researchers who are working on DNA-specific cancer treatments. As we learn more about this disease, we know that we as a community have an important role to play by doing what we can to prevent and detect cancer including donating to research and being screened.

The impact of screening tests is huge in the fight against cancer; it is our responsibility to take action and be screened. Join me, the American Cancer Society, and these fine local health care organizations in spreading the word this month and beyond.