March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, a month dedicated to raising awareness about the need for regular colon cancer screenings. Also known as colon cancer, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the nation. Each year in New York State, more than 9,300 new cases of colorectal cancer are diagnosed and over 3,000 preventable deaths occur.
Over the past few decades, more people have been surviving colon cancer. This is thanks partly to improvements in colon cancer screening. Screening, the process of looking for cancer or pre-cancer in people who have no symptoms of the disease, can find colon cancer early, before symptoms develop, when it’s easier to treat. Screening can also sometimes find growths called polyps so they can be removed before they turn into cancer.
The American Cancer Society recommends regular colon cancer screening for most people starting at age 50. People with a family history of the disease or other risk factors should talk with their doctor about beginning screening at a younger age.
Yet, colorectal cancer month will also be known by another name: sequestration month. On March 1, budgetary “sequestration” kicked in. Sequestration is a federal law that required that the nation cut about $85 billion from military, domestic and certain health care programs.
Sequestration will drastically cut funding for the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Colorectal Cancer Program (CRCCP), which currently provides funding to 25 states – including New York – for implementation of colorectal cancer education, awareness and screening programs for low-income and uninsured men and women. Local CRCCP programs provide colorectal cancer screening and follow-up care to eligible low-income men and women aged 50–64 years who are underinsured or uninsured for screening.
In New York State, the impact of sequestration will result in fewer screenings for low-income, insured men and women. In addition, this loss of federal dollars may result in the state losing funding from CDC to pilot an innovative project: a New York State Health Department effort to provide screening data to local and state organizations, which will work to increase screening rates in underserved communities and improve screening services.
While we can all hope that the Congress will ultimately restore funding for this life-saving program, there are things that each of us can do to reduce our personal risk of getting colon cancer.
Diet, weight, and exercise all affect your risk for colon cancer. You can help lower your risk by eating more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and less red meat (beef, lamb, or pork) and less processed meat (hot dogs and some luncheon meat). Men should limit alcohol to no more than 2 drinks a day, and women to no more than 1 drink a day.
You can also help lower your risk for colon cancer by getting more exercise and staying at a healthy weight. Smoking also increases the risk, so if you smoke, quit.
Of course, personal behavior changes alone are no substitute for regular colon cancer screenings. No one likes getting a colon cancer screening, but this is one screen that can make a real difference. Getting a colonoscopy, for example, not only allows for a comprehensive screening, it also allows for the removal of polyps before they become cancerous. These screenings can save you from a much bigger problem down the road.
Yet, for those without health insurance, getting the money for a health checkup – much less a colorectal cancer screening – can be impossible. Research shows that uninsured patients are less likely to get recommended cancer screenings and are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer at later stages.
Members of Congress need to hear from you. Let them know that restoring funding for important public health programs – like the colon cancer screening program – must be at the top of the list as they put together the federal budget.
Blair Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division. His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.
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