Google colorectal cancer survival rates and a rather shocking American Cancer Society chart pops up.
On the one end is stage I, on the other stage IV. Several subgroups are in between. For stage I patients, the five-year survival rate is 92 percent. For stage IV, that number drops to 11.
“If you’re screened early enough you can prevent yourself altogether from having cancer,” said Kevin Tephabock, senior manager of primary care systems for the American Cancer Society. His job is to work with health care facilities in West Virginia, Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, and Washington D.C. to improve cancer screening rates. Currently only about 63 percent of West Virginians are getting screened.
“For years, colonoscopy was the gold standard…and colonoscopy helps significantly. It decreases colorectal cancer mortality about 30 percent,” he said. “However, many people were not comfortable with the idea of having a colonoscopy. So now there is actually some new testing out there that’s available.”
Called Fecal Occult Blood Tests, they basically test for blood in feces. They are available at primary care facilities and can be taken home by the patient, used, then returned to the doctor or lab. If a polyp or cancer is suspected, further testing is needed.
Screenings are covered by insurance. A new nationwide initiative called 80 by 18 is attempting to increase screening rates to 80 percent by 2018. (Governor Tomblin was the first U.S. governor to sign the pledge.) State officials hope to achieve this goal, in part, by working with primary care facilities.
“In West Virginia one of our bigger barriers is just geographically,” said Tephabock. “We have somewhat of a shortage in terms of GI docs...and so someone in southern WV may have a very difficult time finding a GI doc.”
The screenings find precancerous polyps that can then be surgically removed. That’s it. You continue getting your screenings every year, but other than that, no major life changes.
“As I’ve told several people it’s a day and a half of really unpleasant experience, but it’s a whole lot better than carrying a chemo pack around every two weeks for the rest of your life,” said Chris Stadelman, Governor Tomblin’s Director of Communications.
Stadelman was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer last year at the age of 44 – too young to have needed a screening by federal guidelines.
“I have now been through 28 rounds of chemotherapy,” he said. “Going every two weeks for about 4 hours in the David Lee Cancer Center and then have a 46-hour infusion that’s done through a shoulder badge, a little pack, that I take with me.”
He has been in treatment since October of last year. All the test results so far have been as positive as can be expected. He will likely be in treatment for the rest of his life.
“I had a sense something was wrong and I waited and I waited,” he said. “So paying attention to something that may seem like nothing – well I’m too young for that to happen – clearly a lot of us are not too young for that to happen so I think it makes sense to go ahead and get those screenings if you sense anything might possibly be wrong.”
Stadelman hid his diagnosis for months. He said he’s not entirely sure why. Then added, “I don’t want people to treat me any differently. I want to go about my job the same way…But the more I thought about it I have, because of my job with the governor’s office, because of my experience in media, I have opportunities and connections to help someone else.”
Stadelman laughed and said he takes some credit for Tomblin being the first governor to sign the 80 by 18 pledge. WVU cancer center received a major CDC grant in August to aid in those efforts. The governor has also written to all 49 other governors asking them to sign it as well.
“I think that one to one connection makes such a difference. You can read the studies and hear about what you’re supposed to do, but knowing someone this has happened to makes a big difference for anyone. I have some credibility when it comes to telling people to go get your colonoscopy and get checked and pay attention to things.”
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.