African-Americans in Indiana have a 12 percent higher incidence rate and a 38 percent higher mortality rate from colon cancer than whites, according to Hoosier Cancer Research Network.
March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, and health care providers want to spread the message that early detection through screenings is key to preventing death from this “highly treatable” form of cancer, said Dr. Ruemu Birhiray, an oncologist with St. Vincent.
According to the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, doctors diagnose 137,000 people with colon cancer a year, and the disease kills 50,000 annually, making it the second most widespread cancer that affects both men and women behind lung cancer.
If found and treated early, there’s a 90 percent chance of curing colon cancer, Birhiray said. Chances of successfully treating colon cancer decrease when it spreads to the lymph nodes. Oncologists can limit further spreading with chemotherapy, but the likelihood of remission still drops to 50 percent. If the cancer remains undetected long enough to spread from lymph nodes into organs, it “may be incurable” at that point, Birhiray said. Chemotherapy and surgery may help, but the chance of surviving five years after colon cancer metastasized to an organ is around 20 percent.
The best way to prevent fatal colon cancer is to undergo frequent tests, allowing doctors to catch it while it is still treatable. According to data from the Indiana State Department of Health, the number of colon cancer diagnoses decreased since the 1980s. Experts attribute this decline to better testing technology.
Birhiray recommended people get checked every five to 10 years starting at age 40 for colon cancer. The previous recommendation was age 50, but the average age patients were being diagnosed with colon cancer decreased, resulting in a change in recommendation. Those with a family history of colon cancer should be tested earlier and more frequently, Birhiray said.
However, Hoosiers too often neglect testing. Indiana has a 63 percent colon cancer screening rate for adults age 50 and older, placing Indiana in the bottom fourth of all states and as the second lowest Midwestern state behind Illinois, according to data from American Cancer Society’s “Colorectal Cancer Facts & Figures 2017-2019.”
“From a general awareness standpoint, it reflects that we need to do a better job informing the public about the failure of screening, about the risks of not being screened,” Randy Dillinger, director of public relations and communications at Hoosier Cancer Research Network, said.
Dillinger believes the best way to encourage people to get tested is encouragement from friends and loved ones.
For those undergoing colon cancer treatment, Dillinger recommends patients speak to their doctor about clinical trials.
“They are going to receive the best treatment possible,” Dillinger said. “They’re getting nothing less than what is considered the standard treatment, the best treatment available. … As part of that study, they’re going to be closely monitored. I don’t think you could find another scenario where they’re going to receive better care then when they’re on a clinical trial.”
Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.
In addition to screenings for colon cancer, there are a number of other health screenings recommended for people depending on their age and gender. St. Vincent provided the following recommendations:
Women in their 20s:
Get annual exam and discuss family health history with your doctor.
Women in their 30s:
Start co-testing for cervical cancer (Pap smear plus HPV test).
Continue clinical breast exams.
Women in their 40s:
Get first mammogram and then get them every one or two years.
Undergo a colorectal (colon) screenings. Consider doing the procedure earlier if you have a family history of colon cancer.
Women in their 60s:
Undergo the “Welcome to Medicare Preventive Visit,” which is free if you are eligible through Medicare.
Men ages 18 to 39:
Undergo a skin cancer screening and ask you doctor if they would recommend routine visits.
Men in their 40s and 50s:
Talk to your doctor about whether you need a digital rectal exam and a prostate-specific antigen test to check for prostate cancer.
Undergo a colorectal (colon screenings. Consider doing the procedure earlier if you have a family history of colon cancer.
Undergo a lung cancer test and repeat early if you are a current smoker or quit within the last 15 years.