The bad news is nearly 50,000 Americans will die this year from colorectal cancer (CRC), the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. The good news is it also one of the most preventable cancers if detected early. Alameda Health System (AHS) has saved untold lives over the past seven years by nearly tripling the rate of patients screened for CRC and greatly increasing the likelihood of detecting and removing polyps that can become cancerous.

“It is estimated that 135,000 Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2018 alone,” says Taft Bhuket, MD, AHS Division Chief of Gastroenterology and Hepatology and AHS board member. “In 2011, the AHS colorectal cancer screening rate was only 19%, which, unfortunately, is very typical for safety-net hospitals in the United States. Today, however, we’re almost at 60% system wide.”

The increased screenings are the result of AHS’s successful Screen for Life program, which was supported by an initial grant from Kaiser Permanente and funds secured by the AHS Foundation from the California Department of Public Health. Screen for Life is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) National Colorectal Cancer Action Campaign.

The funding supports two patient navigators who conduct outreach to educate patients, AHS clinicians, and care team members about the importance of CRC screening. The patient navigators encourage patients to be screened and when cancer is diagnosed, they help ensure that patients receive needed medical care and treatment.

This month is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and the patient navigators will be at all AHS facilities to discuss CRC and the importance of screening with patients. Natalie Kennedy, AHS patient navigator, says a common misconception among patients is thinking they are ok because they don’t see any blood in their stool.
“We often have to explain that the blood cannot be seen regularly, it is viewed microscopically at a lab.”

AHS offers two screening options: an annual fecal immunochemical test (FIT), the preferred method, or a colonoscopy screening, which is offered every ten years.

“Colon cancer is preventable, treatable and survivable,” said Emily Miraflor, MD, General and Colorectal Surgeon and member of the AHS CRC Steering Committee. “It is recommended that people with average risk factors start screening for colorectal cancer at age 50. If someone has a family history of cancer, they should get screened ten years younger than the age of their relative when they were diagnosed.”

Miraflor says CRC month is a good time to remind patients and doctors of the importance of CRC screening. Since she specializes in colorectal treatment and care, CRC is always topic of conversation for her, but might not be top of mind for a physician who is, for example, an ophthalmologist.

“Colon and rectal cancer is affecting more and more people. In fact, just last year there were many articles written on the sharp rise in the diagnosis of colon and rectal cancer in adults younger than 50. Often when a young person goes to the doctor for rectal bleeding it is assumed to be due to hemorrhoids rather than a cancer. When in doubt, order a colonoscopy,” said Miraflor.

Giving a patient a cancer diagnosis is not something a physician looks forward to, but Miraflor is grateful she has the tools to help those in need. “My favorite thing about working in this area of medicine is the relationships that I build with my patients. They often have very distressing problems and need ongoing help so I get to know them well over a long period of time,” said Miraflor. “It is extremely rewarding to be a part of the solution in their disease process. I love seeing people in our surveillance clinic when they are feeling better, cancer-free and back to their usual activities.”

For more information about your risk of colorectal cancer, use the risk assessment calculator offered by the National Cancer Institute.