Kentucky Goes on the Offensive Against Colorectal Cancer

FRIDAY July 1, 2011 -- Kentucky has one of the nation's highest death rates for colorectal cancer, surpassed only by Mississippi and Alaska, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Not coincidentally, about a decade ago Kentucky also had the nation's second-worst screening rate for colon cancer.

But the Colon Cancer Prevention Project, based in Louisville, started in 2004 with a mission of turning around those statistics, said Claire Albright, the project's executive director.

A local gastroenterologist, Dr. Whitney Jones, founded the project after years of watching the incidence and death rates for colon cancer rise in his state, Albright said.

"He just got sick of so many people dying of a highly preventable disease," she said. "He had this vision that if more people were aware of the benefits of colon cancer screening, more people would not have to go through the horrible battle with the disease and so many die."

The project attacked the problem on multiple fronts, holding awareness events to raise people's consciousness and lobbying the state legislature to enact laws that would encourage colon cancer screening, Albright said.

Its success has impressed national leaders. Kentucky's screening rate has moved up to 23rd in the state rankings, although its death rate remains high.

"They have been moving quick, and their rates have been raising faster than I've ever seen," said Suzette Smith, the Prevent Cancer Foundation's director of partnerships for colorectal cancer screening.

Kentucky residents have a lot of elevated risk factors when it comes to colon cancer, Albright said. Rates for smoking, obesity and having a sedentary lifestyle are all high in the state.

Screening is the key to overcoming all that, as far as colon cancer is concerned, according to the project.

"Even if you have an unhealthy lifestyle, if you go in and get screened you can remove that polyp before it becomes cancerous," Albright said. "It just seems unthinkable that people would be dying from this disease. We don't want to see people losing loved ones and people suffering when they could undergo this simple procedure."

A stigma associated with discussion of colon cancer is part of the problem, she said.

"People don't want to talk about that part of their body," Albright said. "Our challenge is to break down that barrier, so people can understand it's OK to talk about this type of cancer."

In that regard, the project takes a lot of cues from the breast cancer awareness movement.

"Twenty years ago, they were facing the same situation. People didn't want to be rude and talk about that part of the female body," Albright said.

"Persistence is really the biggest lesson," she said. "Just because something doesn't happen overnight, you need to stick to it and continue reaching out to people."

The Colon Cancer Prevention Project will host its sixth walk/run event in August. The project also will honor its annual tradition of airing a documentary about colon cancer on public television in Kentucky.

But much of the heavy lifting goes on at the state capitol, with advocates trying to secure funding and political support for their goal.

Lobbying has paid off, to a certain extent. In 2008, the state legislature voted to create a program to extend colon cancer screening to uninsured Kentuckians. However, the state has not funded the program.

"We've been working for a long time on this, and we continue to plug away," Albright said. "There's not a lot of money to go around, and a lot of worthy programs."

But she said she's certain that before too long their success in increasing colon cancer screenings will result in a decline in deaths.

"We've done a tremendous amount with very little funding, and the pace is actually quite fast," she said. "When you see our screening rates having increased so much, you know our mortality rates will begin to decrease before too long."

More information

A companion article offers an overview of colorectal cancer screening.

Posted: July 2011


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