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June 16, 2022

Addressing racial disparities in colorectal cancer screening rates

Marketing Adult Health

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Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. The statistics of colorectal cancer among communities of color are even more concerning: Black men and women are 20 percent more likely to get colorectal cancer and about 40 percent more likely to die from it than most other groups.

Independence Blue Cross (Independence) is committed to reducing health disparities among communities of color. The company is working to close the gaps to ensure more people in communities of color receive colorectal cancer screenings to improve survival rates.

Racial Health Disparities

Although the Black community — particularly Black men — have a higher colorectal cancer mortality rate, screening rates among the Black community are lower than other racial groups.

The reasons for these low screening rates are complicated, but they’re not impossible to overcome. The differences in colorectal cancer rates are due to a variety of reasons including disparities in access to health care as well as the age at diagnosis.

The good news is we have the tools to improve survival rates — we just need to use them.

Increased Risk for Young Adults

Another concerning trend is the rising rate of colorectal cancer among young adults. Millennials are experiencing rising risk factors including inflammatory bowel disease (e.g., ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease), diabetes, and obesity. There are certain factors — including family history — that may put you at an increased risk for colorectal cancer. Diet, exercise, alcohol use, and smoking are also risk factors that can affect your chances of developing colorectal cancer.

The recent death of actor Chadwick Boseman of Black Panther highlights the concerning rise of colon cancer rates among young people, particularly young Black men. Boseman died of colon cancer at age 43. That’s why it’s important to talk to your doctor about your individual risk, and if you’d be a candidate for earlier screening.

Symptoms to Look Out For

While some cases of colorectal cancer may have no signs or symptoms, there are certain symptoms that could suggest you have colorectal cancer. For this reason, you should be aware of these symptoms and talk to your doctor if you notice them.

According to the American Cancer Society, symptoms may include:

• A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, or a narrowing of the stool, that lasts for more than a few days
• A feeling that you still need to have a bowel movement even after you’ve had one
• Any sign of rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, including bright red blood or stool which is very brown or black
• Cramping or abdominal (belly) pain
• Weakness and fatigue
• Unintended weight loss

New Colorectal Cancer Screening Recommendations

Did you know that colorectal cancer screening recommendations have recently changed? The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now recommends screenings beginning at age 45. However, certain medical conditions or risk factors may make you eligible for an earlier screening, so talk to your doctor about when you should get screened.

Coverage for Preventive Colonoscopies

Most Independence health plans cover preventive colonoscopies with no out-of-pocket costs for members beginning at age 45. Check your benefits for coverage details.

The Gold Standard of Colorectal Screenings

The most effective screening test for colorectal cancer is a colonoscopy. This is because during a colonoscopy, your doctor can see directly inside your colon, so if a cancerous or precancerous polyp is observed, it can be removed right then and there. In this way, when colorectal cancer is detected early, it’s highly treatable. With other types of screening, any positive result will require you to have a colonoscopy to confirm the finding. Luckily, colonoscopies have come a long way, and the procedure is not as bad as you might think.

There are other less-invasive screening options available:

• Fecal immunochemical test (FIT): If you do not get a colonoscopy, The American College of Gastroenterology recommends checking for blood in the stool with the fecal immunochemical test (FIT) every year. This test can be done in the comfort of your own home. Independence works with our providers to identify members who are eligible for the FIT screening. This non-invasive test is mailed directly to you. After you return your samples to the lab, the results are shared with your doctor. Talk to your doctor to see if you are eligible for a FIT screening.

• Cologuard®: Cologuard tests for colorectal cancer by identifying abnormal DNA and traces of blood in the stool that can result from precancerous polyps and colorectal cancer. This test requires a prescription from your doctor. You can start by filling out a form on the company’s website that you can then bring to your doctor.

Don’t wait, talk to your doctor about your screening options today!

This content was originally published on IBX Insights.

About Dr. Nuria Lopez-Pajares

Dr. Nuria Lopez-Pajares joined Independence Blue Cross in 2018 after practicing primary care and population health for 18 years. With a background in public health and preventive medicine, she is now a medical director involved in utilization management, case management, and quality improvement. What she loves about this job is the opportunity to put prevention into practice and educate.

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