People walk through an inflatable colon exhibit at Baptist Health Paducah during National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in March 2011. Colorectal cancer remains one of the leading cancer killers in the nation, but is one of the most preventable if caught early.
Early detection through screenings can save lives in the fight against the nation’s second-leading cancer killer, a message health agencies nationwide hope to impart with a month-long awareness campaign.
Although colorectal cancer proves to be so deadly — about 10 percent of patients diagnosed at later stages survive — the form of cancer is also one of the most preventable.
If caught and treated early, the five-year survival rate is about 90 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, about 2,600 new cases of colorectal cancer will be diagnosed each year in Kentucky, and nearly 900 of those people will die.
Lack of public knowledge about the disease has prompted National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month throughout March to help people understand the burden associated with the easily-catchable cancer.
“We haven’t really seen a decrease in mortality and incidence in the past few years, making awareness so important,” said Jamie Smith, cancer control specialist with the Kentucky Cancer Program.
Kentuckians, by comparison with the rest of the nation, ranked first in incidence rates of colorectal cancer among men and women in 2009 at a rate of 52.8 per 100,000 population, according to CDC data.
Smith commended state government actions to make colon cancer screenings a priority in the past several years, as Kentucky has offered grants to local health departments to help low income, uninsured people receive screenings.
Calloway County Health Department was the most recent recipient in January, receiving more than $120,000 over two years to help fund free fecal immunochemical (FIT) tests to qualified patients. Should those tests return troubling results, the patient can then receive a free colonoscopy at Murray-Calloway County Hospital.
Dr. Shane Hendon, gastroenterologist at Lourdes hospital, said unlike breast cancer or prostate cancer where no preventative tools exist, colorectal cancer can be prevented with a routine colonoscopy, making it one of the most effective procedures available.
“We actually have a tool where we can prevent the majority of colon cancers,” Hendon said. “If we can get people in and screened we can prevent colon cancer altogether. This is not just something you have done when you have problems.”
Screenings like the FIT test and colonoscopies help physicians detect polyps growing on the inside of the colon that could turn cancerous, as colorectal cancer generally doesn’t exhibit symptoms during early stages.
As colorectal cancer generally doesn’t exhibit symptoms during early stages, health professionals stress routine screening. Hendon said it’s recommended people aged 50 and older should develop a screening regimen, but people with a first degree relative with a history of polyps or colon cancer should start by age 40, or ten years before the relative’s age at diagnosis.
“It’s important to have an open dialogue with your physician because they may not know your family history,” she said.
Call Will Pinkston, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676 or follow @WCPinkston on Twitter.