Colonoscopies play a crucial role in preventing deadly cancer


Published: Sunday, March 24, 2013 at 5:02 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 24, 2013 at 5:45 p.m.

It’s not the sexiest cancer — and probably not one you’d discuss at the dinner table.

Facts

How to get screened

For more information on the screenings through NFRMC, call the toll-free line of Consult-a-Nurse at 800-611-6913.

The Screen for Life Program will hold its last free screenings sign-up day at the Palatka Super Walmart on March 30 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

But colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the U.S. and the third-leading cause of cancer death in North Central Florida.

It’s also highly preventable if polyps in the intestinal tract — which can turn into cancerous tumors — are spotted early. Colonoscopies are the routine screening test that people should begin at age 50, since age is the biggest risk factor for colorectal cancer. To undergo them, people have to drink a liquid that helps clean out their bowels so doctors can examine the inside of their colon and rectum for any polyps.

In March, which is colorectal awareness month, local doctors have been targeting people for free screenings.

“We think it’s an enormous public service,” said Dr. Thomas Beers, a gastroenterologist at North Florida Regional Medical Center, whose Endoscopy Center, along with Digestive Disease Associates, is providing 31 free screenings to people who are eligible for Medicaid.

Beers said a colonoscopy “is probably the best test in order to prevent cancer.”

“We found a number of folks with cancer that otherwise wouldn’t have been caught, and a number have been prevented.”

Beers added that the cost/benefit analysis is also better for colon cancer than any other cancer, meaning it pays to be screened.

“It’s the easiest cancer to prevent, but the most expensive to treat,” added Jessica Peterson, the regional navigator for the Screen for Life Program at the Department of Health, which provides as many a 100 free screenings to people who qualify for Medicaid through Shands at the University of Florida with a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last year, two people who were diagnosed with colorectal cancer through the screening program were then treated for free at Shands.

Shands nurse navigator Amanda Sandlin, who works with the screening program, said she helps break down some of the other barriers to treatment by making patients aware of local resources: The American Cancer Society has a free transportation program so patients can get to treatments. Medicaid in certain counties also provides reduced-cost transportation. If patients have trouble coping with the diagnosis, she directs them to a psychologist.

“There’s so much support out there, so if we can talk to patients about that, it eases their minds,” Sandlin said.

The Screen for Life Program takes a bus out into smaller communities to reach more people. It’s gone to Chiefland, Starke, Live Oak and will be in Palatka on Saturday.

“What we realized is that transportation is a big issue for a lot of patients,” said Dr. Thomas George, an oncologist at Shands who works with the program. “Going to them instead of expecting them to come to us may be one of the ways to overcome disparities.”

But getting people to sign up for screenings is the first challenge, she added. One Saturday at the Walmart in Chiefland, a lot of people passed by the “Screen for Life” table to sign up for screenings. Some scrunched up their faces and said, “I don’t need it.”

“I think there’s a big stigma,” Sandlin said about colorectal cancer. “It’s invasive. It’s kind of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”

That was Leona Ratliff’s attitude. When her gynecologist told her she had to get a colonoscopy 12 years ago, Ratliff, 69, of Lake City, ignored the advice.

“I go faithfully for my mammograms and paps. I said, ‘Just because I’m older, I don’t want to get things done,’ ” Ratliff said.

Her first colonoscopy revealed a polyp, but instead of undergoing colonoscopies in the years that followed to monitor that polyp, she let them slip by, she said. By the time she had another colonoscopy in 2008, she had colon cancer.

“Nobody ever sat me down and said, ‘Now that you know your body makes polyps, you are at risk of cancer,’ ” Ratliff said. “I found out by getting colon cancer myself.”

That’s why both screening programs focus on awareness in their campaign to get people screened.

“People need to be aware of how powerful the test is and the impact that the test has,” Beers said. He added that patients diagnosed early have a 90 percent survival rate after five years. That drops to 11 percent for people who wait for symptoms to appear and are diagnosed at later stages of the disease.

“If we can prevent one cancer, then the month has been worth every bit of effort,” Beers said.

Even if people don’t qualify for these programs, others in the area such as the physician referral network called “We Care” provide similar services, Peterson said.

“I get five calls a day from people who have rectal bleeding or other problems.”

They often call back a few weeks later to thank her for the referral, she added.

“We never leave someone high and dry,” Peterson said.

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