Sentara Targets Death Rates From Preventable Cancers
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Sentara Targets Death Rates From Preventable Cancers 

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Norfolk, VA- "Don’t Sit On Colon Cancer" ads will soon appear in Hampton Roads.

"Preventable. Treatable. Beatable" is the theme, as Sentara Healthcare and its Optima Health Plan launch a three-year campaign to prevent colorectal cancer.

“Death rates from colon cancer in Hampton Roads are higher than the national average,” says George Heuser, MD, a medical director for Sentara Health Management. “The irony is, it’s one of the most preventable and treatable cancers, if we catch it early.”

The campaign will urge men and women over age 50 to see their doctors about a colonoscopy, the most effective prevention method for colorectal cancers. It will also encourage young adults to recommend screenings to their parents.

“Screening saves lives in two ways,” says Dr. Heuser. "First, it detects colon polyps before they become cancerous. Second, screening can detect cancers of the colon and rectum in their earliest stages, when they are the most treatable."

The screening campaign will be similar to Sentara’s successful ‘Resistance Kills’ effort that focused on unnecessary antibiotics. It will feature newspaper ads, posters in doctors’ offices and public places, direct mailings and community education programs. And, the campaign will have new allies in the Minority Health Coalition, a network of trained ‘health ministers’ in area churches, who will urge their members to get a colonoscopy.

Screening is underutilized

Even among Sentara Health Plan membership, the screening rate is startlingly low. Only 16% of members over age 50 received a colonoscopy screening in 2002. That leaves an enormous percentage of the membership at higher risk for colorectal cancers.

Screening is effective

During a colonoscopy, patients relax under mild sedation, while a gastroenterologist uses a slender, flexible fiber-optic camera to examine the interior of the large intestine for polyps and abnormalities. The brief out-patient procedure is performed in a doctor’s office or a hospital. Most polyps discovered can be removed on the spot.

"The vast majority of patients just take a nap during the procedure,” says Taylor Wootton, MD, a gastroenterologist in Norfolk. “When they wake up, they’re often surprised it’s already over. There’s no pain, little risk, and most patients won’t need another screening for ten years.”

This direct visual examination can identify pre-cancerous tissues long before the patient has symptoms. “Waiting for symptoms means you may have waited too long,” says Sandra Holloway, MD, a Peninsula gastroenterologist. “No symptoms does not necessarily mean you have no problems.”

Screening is covered

Virtually every major health insurance carrier covers colon cancer screening for patients at age 50, and earlier for those with symptoms.

Myths, fears prevent detection

“I don’t want that thing in me,” is a common objection to colonoscopy. “I don’t want to be unconscious,” is another. There is men’s tendency to avoid doctors, and embarrassment about things going on ‘down there.’ Dr. Holloway insists that for their long-term well-being, patients over 50 must discuss colorectal health frankly with their doctors.

“Scopes are smaller. Preparation is easier. Sedation is better,” says Dr. Holloway. “The procedure is more comfortable than ever.”

“You can choose a few hours for screening, or the potential for months of misery,” says Dr. Wootton. “Colon cancer can mean major surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Screening can prevent all that.”

“Lower screening rates mean higher death rates,” says Dr. Heuser of Sentara Health Management. “For me, it’s an easy choice.”

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