Preventing Colon Cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 800,000 Illinois residents who should be screened for colon cancer haven't done so because of a lack of insurance or awareness; which is why they are joining hands with area hospitals to raise that screening rate.

Today, 60-year-old Eleanor Richey has peace of mind. A recent colonoscopy revealed she is free and clear of colorectal cancer.

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“Well, my mother, before she passed, she had great big, old polyps,” said Richey. “And when she was at Trinity, her doctor wanted to cut on her, and so when she went to University of Chicago they were able to get this great, big, old polyp out through the colonoscopy, so she didn’t have to have the surgery.”

Most colorectal cancers develop slowly over several years. But early screening, which is recommended for most patients beginning at age 50, can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Adrienne White is the Vice President for Health Initiatives and Advocacy for the American Cancer Society’s Illinois Division. 

“It’s one of the few cancers that we actually have very effective treatments, but it also is one of the very few cancers that you can detect early,” said White. “And you can actually detect pre-cancerous cells or cells before they even begin to be cancers. So, that means you can actually prevent colon cancer, which is a very rare situation.”

According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer rates have declined significantly over the past 20 years, due in part to early detection and removal of precancerous polyps. But, they say screening rates in Illinois remain low, with only 62 percent of the eligible population having received a colonoscopy.

Dr. Daniel Derman is Vice President of Operations at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and responsible for the hospital’s community service efforts.

“That gap is there for many different reasons. First and foremost, is that people don’t know or don’t want to get the test,” said Dr. Derman. “But a certain number of those people also would like to get the test but don’t have the means to get the test. It is an expensive test, it’s relatively expensive to get. So, the fact is in Illinois we have far many more people that need the test than have the resources to do it.”

That’s exactly what happened to Eleanor Richey. Despite understanding how important it was to be screened, given her family medical history, she waited until she was 60 years old to have her screening because she’s uninsured.

Today, colon cancer is the third most diagnosed cancer in the United States and the second most common cause of cancer death in Illinois. White says it doesn’t have to be. She says it’s time to work toward reducing incidences and mortality rates in colon cancer by raising awareness and getting more patients screened.

“The opportunities in colon cancer right now are just wonderfully ripe, if we can get the population to respond to the opportunities that exist for prevention, as well as get the health care provider community to increase their capacity to provide the services that need to be provided,” said White.

In cooperation with a number of Chicago area hospitals, like Northwestern Memorial, Rush University Medical Center and a host of other facilities, the American Cancer Society is attempting to raise the Illinois screening rate to 75 percent by performing colonoscopies on an additional 80,000 people a year.

To bolster support for the program, ACS is providing funding to hospitals to help cover the cost of colonoscopies for a targeted 9,000 uninsured patients.

At Komed Holman Health Center, one of the Federally Qualified Health Centers that has signed on to the screening initiative, educators identify patients who should get the screenings and provide them with all the material they need to make informed decisions about colon health.

Dr. Timothy Long is Interim Director of the Near North Health Services Corporation, which runs Komed. He says catching colon cancer early also saves money across the entire medical system.

“It’s cost-saving in the health care system and it saves lives,” said Dr. Long. “Anyone that has had a colonoscopy and had a polyp removed knows that their life was saved by having that test done upfront. So, for us, as primary care providers here at Komed and Near North, it’s extremely important, and certainly is for our patients.”

The caveat for hospitals is that in order to sign onto the program, they must agree to take on the cost associated with treating a patient if colon cancer is found. A benefit that far outweighs the cost in the long run, according to advocates like Dr. Derman.

“As far as I’m concerned, second to not finding the problem, the second worst is finding it, but then saying, ‘oh, you have to go someplace else to be treated.’ So, we have a very firm policy and approach here at Northwestern now that says that we’re only going to do screening programs when we are committed to taking the patient all the way through the system,” said Dr. Derman. “So we’re doing these 200 cases. If it turns out that five of them, 10 of them have a colon cancer and need surgery and need chemotherapy and need treatment, we’re committed to take that patient all the way through the system.”

It’s something that all the hospitals partnering with the American Cancer Society’s screening initiative have agreed to. The hope is, through this initiative, over the next few years, health care providers will be able to prevent some 30,000 cancers from developing.

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