Colorectal Cancer Often Goes Undetected

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In an effort to reduce the toll from colon and rectal cancer, Missouri health officials are offering free screenings to people in the St. Louis area who lack health insurance.

More than 3,400 Missourians could be diagnosed with colorectal cancer this year alone and more than 1,100 are likely to die from this disease. The disease poses the greatest danger to African-Americans and anyone age 50 and older.

“Often people do not know they have colorectal cancer in its early stages because there are few, if any, symptoms,” said Margaret Donnelly, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. “That is why we urge Missourians to have regular screenings, which can identify polyps before coming cancerous and help in the early detection giving patients an excellent chance at survival.”

To receive a free screening, participants must sign up by the end of May by calling St. Louis ConnectCare at 314-879-6392.

State health department officials are particularly concerned with the disparity in the rates of colorectal cancer in African-Americans compared to their white counterparts. A recent report issued by the department showed that while the overall rate of colorectal cancer in Missouri has decreased, the gap between African-Americans and whites is growing.

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The report found that the rate of colorectal cancer in whites has been dropping nearly 6 percent a year since 2001, while the rate among African-Americans has remained the same. Several factors contribute to the disproportionately higher number of colorectal cancer cases in African-Americans, particularly a lack of early detection because of less access to health insurance.

“Several initiatives over the past few years designed to increase access to those life-saving screenings have helped more African-American and low-income residents in Missouri get the key early testing they need,”, said Melinda Laughlin, a registered nurse and program manager for the state health department’s Show Me Healthy Missourians program. “But we must do more.”

A colonoscopy is the best way to detect and prevent colorectal cancer. The cancer usually begins with a polyp, or growth, in the colon or rectum. Over time, some polyps can become cancerous. Tests can find polyps so they can be removed before they turn into cancer. Screening can also detect colorectal cancer in its earliest stages, when treatment is most successful.

The state health department, in conjunction with federal health officials, is offering free screenings to uninsured or underinsured residents in several counties in eastern Missouri. The Missouri Screen for Life program is a three-year pilot program funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The free screenings for colorectal cancer are available in the city of St. Louis and the counties of St. Louis, Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln, St. Charles, St. Francois, Ste. Genevieve, Warren and Washington. These free screenings are offered in partnership with the St. Louis ConnectCare, Barnes Jewish Hospital, Siteman Cancer Center and other health care providers. The Program for the Elimination of Cancer Disparities (PECaD) of the Siteman Cancer Center is working to eliminate disproportionate cancer burden and disparity including colorectal cancer among African Americans, low income and underserved individuals in the St. Louis region through community partnerships, outreach, education and research. Investigators associated with PECaD and Siteman Cancer Center have worked to identify barriers to colorectal cancer screening and timely diagnosis, and to develop effective communications and programs to reduce the burden of colorectal cancer in our community.

The pilot screening program began August 2005 and will end August 30, 2009, but participants must sign up by May 31 to receive the free screening.

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