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Blair Horner: Colon Cancer Awareness

Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in New York.  In 2011, nearly 10,000 new cases of colon cancer were diagnosed in New York State, and about 2,900 died of the disease. 

It doesn’t need to be.  The earlier colon cancer is found the better the chances of survival.  The good news is that more people in New York are taking advantage of screening tools available; but a large percentage are still finding their colon cancers at a later stage.  In New York, many colon cancers are still being detected at later stages when survival rates are lower.

When colon cancers are detected at an early, localized stage, the 5-year survival is 90 percent. After the cancer has spread regionally to involve adjacent organs or lymph nodes, the 5-year survival rate drops to 68 percent.  For persons with distant metastases, the 5-year survival is 10 percent. 

A recent study confirms that one screening test, colonoscopy, can prevent colon cancer from ever developing.  It allows doctors to detect and remove precancerous polyps before they become life-threatening malignancies.  Use of this test has increased significantly over the past ten years.  The data shows that the incidence of colorectal cancer in New York declined by 20 percent since the mid-1990s.  Experts attribute the decline to increased screening rates.

The latest statewide data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey show that in 2010, 70 percent of New Yorkers over 50 reported having had one of the tests recommended in the American Cancer Society: fecal occult blood tests or sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy.

Tragically, this rate is not high enough since over 55 percent of colon cancers in the state are diagnosed at later stages when there are fewer treatment options and survival rates are lower.

When it comes to colon screening, New York is making progress, but there’s room for significant improvement.  

For those who lack health insurance, the situation is dire.  According to the US Census Bureau, in 2010 nearly 2.9 million New Yorkers lacked health insurance.  Research shows that the uninsured and underinsured are more likely to develop cancer, to have their cancer detected later and to receive inadequate treatment. 

Of adults 50-64 years of age who lack health insurance, only 38 percent received fecal occult blood tests or sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy tests as recommended in the American Cancer Society’s screening guidelines. As a result for these individuals, far more end up with life-threatening forms of cancer. 

New York lawmakers can help those without health insurance by agreeing to the funding state cancer screening programs at the level advanced by Governor Cuomo.  The state’s Cancer Services Program offers free colorectal, cervical and breast cancer screenings for those lacking health insurance.  It is critical that this life-saving program continue to be funded.

For the rest of us, we need to ensure that we get colon cancer screenings in a timely and appropriate way.  The risk for colon cancer increases with age with more than 90 percent of all cases diagnosed in individuals aged 50 years and older. Beginning at age 50 men and women who are at average risk for developing colon cancer should begin screening.  Screening can result in the detection and removal of polyps before they become cancerous as well as the detection of cancer that is at an early, more treatable stage.

March is colon cancer month.  There are two things that you can do:

(1)   Take the time to check to see if you are due for a screening, and

(2)   Urge the legislature to approve cancer screening funding for those New Yorkers who lack health insurance.

Blair Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division. His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.