No one enjoys getting a colonoscopy. Dr. Kent Cunningham and a statewide group know that. They also know getting one can save lives from one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in both men and women.
The South Carolina Cancer Alliance has been …
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This is the first in a three-part series in partnership with the South Carolina Cancer Alliance about colorectal cancer in the three-county region of Sumter, Lee and Clarendon and how to spread awareness and prevent it through screenings.
The South Carolina Cancer Alliance has been working since 2003 for the prevention and early detection of cancer and improving the treatment of those affected by the disease, but one area of their South Carolina Cancer Plan it develops every five years addresses screening and early detection.
In South Carolina, about 2,000 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer and about 800 will die from the disease each year, according to the alliance. While it is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths, it is also one of the most preventable.
"For Sumter, we are about with the national average for colon cancer incidents and deaths, but in Clarendon and Lee counties, the incidents of cancer and the death rates of cancer are much higher," said Cunningham, a gastroenterologist with Sumter Gastroenterology who is partnering with the alliance to help screen adults for the disease.
Most colorectal cancers often begin as a growth called a polyp, which may form on the inner wall of the colon or rectum, both of which are parts of the large intestine. Some develop into cancer, so detecting and removing polyps is vital to preventing colorectal cancer altogether.
There's one problem. Not enough adults are getting screened for polyps.
"We don't do screenings to look for colon cancer. We do screenings to prevent colon cancer," Cunningham said. "For people who have insurance, often it is a free service covered as a screening method."
African-Americans are more likely to get colorectal cancer, so it is recommended they get screened at age 45, he said. It is recommended everyone else get screened at age 50. A colonoscopy is different than a mammogram, for example, Cunningham said, because if there are no polyps, another screening is not needed every year.
According to the alliance's state plan, their goal is to have 80 percent of adults aged 50-75 screened by the end of this year.
"Currently, South Carolina is well behind," said Henry Well, executive director of the alliance. "Roughly two-thirds are screened, but that leaves us far behind."
Well said a major focus of the alliance in regards to this initiative is to spread awareness of the accessibility and importance of screenings. There are more diagnoses and deaths in this area not because of any socioeconomic or geographic reason. It's because people just don't know, and if they know, it isn't being stressed enough to get them to go.
"What's the alternative of not getting screened? It could be death," he said. "Our goal is to educate people in the Sumter area about the importance of getting screened because we know they're not getting screened like they should."
Cunningham said he went into the medical field because he was interested in the digestive system and how he saw gastroenterologists help patients be able to eat more easily. He started becoming active in the colorectal cancer awareness and prevention aspect when he saw his field become a specialty for these life-saving screenings.
"It is embarrassing to have a colonoscopy. We accept that. It's uncomfortable," he said. "It's embarrassing. It's also important to know that it's, as [a fellow doctor used to explain], better to have one day of misery than a lifetime of misery.
"The cost of treating a diagnosis is extremely high. The amount of work you miss is extremely high, and the chance of living is lower. So, it's important to put up with one embarrassing day in order to get this cancer."
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