March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. This year, Coloradans have good reason to celebrate. A new law effective July 1 will help ensure access to life-saving colorectal cancer screening and prevention measures for Colorado's citizens.First, the bad news.
Colorectal cancer, a common and lethal disease affecting both men and women, is the second-leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. This is true despite the fact that we have very effective screening and prevention measures available that could prevent more than 60 percent of these deaths. As recently as 2006, nearly 40 percent of adults older than 50 had not received appropriate screening.
Despite stronger evidence supporting screening for colon cancer compared with that for breast or prostate cancer, more women in the U.S. undergo breast cancer screening, and more men undergo prostate cancer screening, than screening for colon cancer. The cost of screening, which is not always covered by insurance, has been one of the main barriers.
Until it is advanced, colon cancer is painless. Most people who have it feel perfectly well. Colon cancer usually progresses very slowly but, as time goes by, the chance for a cure, which hinges on early detection, often is lost.
Now, some good news.
Colon cancer is preventable, treatable and beatable. Most colon cancers develop from abnormal painless growths (polyps and flat lesions) that can be found by screening tests and removed before they turn into cancer. Screening tests also find cancers that already have formed at an early stage, when a cure is possible.
Because of the efforts of co-sponsor Sen. Jim Isgar and others, Colorado has joined New Mexico and 27 other states that now mandate insurance coverage of colorectal cancer screening. Until 2009 Colorado scored an "F" on the Colorectal Cancer Legislation Report Card (which still gives Arizona and Utah an "F" for failing to mandate coverage). This year, Colorado scored an "A." This brings colon cancer screening for Colorado into line with the benefits defined by the federal Medicare program, which has provided coverage for the preferred screening test, colonoscopy, since 2001.
The Colorectal Cancer Screening and Health Insurance Mandate Bill (HB 1410) requires insurance companies in Colorado to cover all generally accepted tests used for the prevention and detection of colon cancer. Importantly, coverage shall not be subject to policy deductibles (although co-payments and co-insurance shall apply).
Keep your risk for colon cancer low by staying physically active, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking. A diet low in animal fats and high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains is highly recommended.
The most important thing you can do to save your life is to get screened. According to the American Cancer Society, all men and women older than 50 should be screened for colorectal cancer. Screening should begin earlier in individuals with a close family history of colon cancer and in African-Americans. Talk with your doctor or health-care provider. You can learn more about colon cancer screening by visiting www.digestivehealth.net.
Dr. Patrick D. Gerstenberger is a board-certified physician in gastroenterology practicing in Durango.