Grandmothers, gifts and why Oregonians are talking about colorectal cancer screening

Middle-aged female standing outside in a garden smiling at camera Mary Stern Habitat for Humanity McMinnville, Oregon

Quick Summary

Colorectal cancer is highly preventable and treatable if caught early. Oregonians have been encouraging their friends and neighbors to get screened for colorectal cancer—and to talk about this potentially life-saving step with the people they love. Why? Because we know that talking about it leads to more people getting screened—and more opportunities to catch cancers at an early stage.

On the radio, in local newspapers and online, Oregonians have been encouraging their friends and neighbors to get screened for colorectal cancer—and to talk about this potentially life-saving step with the people they love. These ads are part of a campaign from the Oregon Health Authority, with grant funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to help our state reduce the number of Oregonians who die each year from this disease.

Colorectal cancer is highly preventable and treatable if caught early. Screenings alone can actually prevent cancer by removing pre-cancerous polyps, and they are highly effective at detecting cancer early. Yet colorectal cancer took the lives of 645 Oregonians in 2010, according to the Oregon State Cancer Registry.

Those high stakes have spurred women and men in all parts of the state, from Astoria to Hermiston, to lend their names and faces to the “The Cancer You Can Prevent” campaign. They have stepped up in their communities to demystify a topic that still makes some people uncomfortable. Their faces in these ads convey courage, compassion and power: the power to prevent their neighbors’ pain and to extend their lives—simply by talking about getting screened.

For me, though, it’s another face that comes to mind when I think about colorectal cancer and early detection. When I was a baby, my grandmother Marie was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. But because her cancer was detected and removed at an early stage, she lived another 35 years. Having my grandmother in my life as I grew into adulthood was a tremendous gift—a gift made possible by the medical care that caught her cancer early enough to save her life.

In Oregon, we value the idea that everyone has the chance to be as healthy as they can be. All of us—no matter the size of our hometown, the languages we speak, or the amount in our paychecks—should have the opportunity to spend more time with our grandmothers and with all of the people we love.

Yet only 64 percent of men and women over 50 in Oregon are being screened for colorectal cancer. By comparison, screening rates for breast and cervical cancer are at or over 75 percent. Partly because of the low screening rate, more than half of all colorectal cancers in Oregon are found at late stages, when they are much more difficult—and often impossible—to treat.

Latinos in Oregon have an even lower chance of getting screened for colorectal cancer and, sadly, are diagnosed with late-stage cancers at a higher rate. Only 21 percent of our over-50 friends, neighbors and co-workers who are Hispanic or Latino are getting screened, the lowest rate of any group in the state.

That’s why we talked with Oregonians in the Hispanic/Latino community, asked them which messages would help increase screening rates, and built a campaign around their voices. In ads, brochures and posters—in English and Spanish—they encourage each other to get screened. Check out the campaign at www.impedircancer.org (in English, “to prevent cancer”).

While it’s important to keep encouraging individual Oregonians to talk to their doctors about getting screened, physicians and other medical providers must make sure they also are offering these critical services to all patients. Think for a minute about what important tests or check-ups you might have missed without a suggestion or reminder from your doctor. To increase screening rates and save the lives of hundreds of Oregonians, these conversations must work both ways.

  • Everyone over the age of 50 (45 for African Americans) should be screened for colorectal cancer even if they don’t have family history or symptoms.
  • There are several reliable screening options. Most insurance plans cover 100% of the cost of screening with no co-pays or deductibles. Even without insurance, there are low cost, reliable options.
  • More resources: thecanceryoucanprevent.org.

I’m still a few years off from 50, the age after which the CDC recommends screening (45 for African Americans). But my family and I have talked about screenings for years, at home and in our communities. We know that talking about it leads to more people getting screened—and more opportunities to catch cancers at an early stage. And as my grandmother showed me, being early can save your life.

Karen Girard, MPA, is the former Manager of Oregon Health Authority’s Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention section.

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