Image source: anarosadebastiani (Pixaby) 

Colorectal cancer and breast cancer screening programs, when implemented properly, have led to significant reduction in death. However, screening uptake varies greatly across the U.S. Rural communities, specifically in Appalachia, the Mississippi delta, frontier lands, and prairie lands face issues with access that are accentuated by poor health behaviors.

A 2021 cross-sectional study by Shete et al, which was recently published in JAMA found that urban women were significantly more likely to be adherent to colorectal cancer screening as compared to women residing in rural areas (82% vs 78%, respectively; P=.01). When they conducted a multi-variable mixed effects analysis, they found that rural women had 19% lower odds of being adherent to colorectal cancer screening guidelines. 

Along with a difference in screening adherence, there was a significant difference in beliefs and understanding of cancer, health, and screening. When comparing the thoughts of women dwelling in rural vs. urban areas regarding cancer and cancer screening:

  • 62% vs 52% believed “It seems like everything causes cancer”
  • 24% vs 17% believed “There’s not much you can do to lower your chances of getting cancer”
  • 76% vs 67% believed “There are so many different recommendations about preventing cancer, it’s hard to know which ones to follow”

Despite the differences in beliefs and perception of cancer screening overall, rural and urban women were similarly adherent (81% vs 81%) to breast cancer screening. Here the authors hypothesize that the difference in colorectal cancer screening is likely due to the difference in screening diffusion in the rural areas.

Newer colorectal screening technologies like fecal immunochemical tests (FIT) may work better in a rural setting because rural women are 69% more likely to skip going to a doctor due to cost. Taking away the face to face component can reduce cost for insurance companies and by effect patients, which could increase screening uptake. 

FIT tests can also be useful for working women. Among women over the age of 65, the adherence rate to colorectal cancer screening recommendations was significantly higher than among women ages 50-64 years. This difference in uptake due to age is likely because older/retired women do not have to take time off of work for screening tests such as a colonoscopy or a sigmoidoscopy.  

Furthermore, patients with insurance were 2 to 3 times more likely to get screened, so changes in insurance care coverage—particularly, the removal of a copayment for a preventive service—through the Affordable Care Act would increase screening uptake. In order to increase rural colorectal cancer screening uptake, programs that identify and act on access issues are needed as are policies that can improve access at the local level.

The Colon Cancer Foundation recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Cynthia Sears, Professor of Medicine and Oncology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is also the leader of the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Johns Hopkins. Her current research focus is on the microbiome and how specific bacteria can contribute to colon cancer.

Dr. Sears, received her medical degree at Thomas Jefferson Medical College and completed her training in internal medicine at the Cornell Medical School, and trained in infectious diseases at The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute and the University of Virginia. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Sears has conducted research on colonic microbiota and colon cancer, making her an expert in this field.

Q. What enticed you to start studying bacteria and the microbiome in relation to colon cancer.  

Dr. Sears: I am an infectious disease doctor who got into internal medicine because of previous work I conducted. I conduct research on how the microbiome is impacted by organisms and bacteria. I am also looking at improving immunotherapy response among colon cancer patients, since, unfortunately, only 20% to 30% of colon cancer patients respond to immunotherapya majority of patients do not respond. I am currently working to help improve treatments for cancer patients.

Dr. Cynthia Sears

Q. Can you help us improve our understanding of the interaction between a person’s dietary habits and the gut microbiome and how it relates to colorectal cancer?

Dr. Sears: There’s been substantial research showing that diet is a major driver of the composition and function of the microbiome. Individuals who shifted from a meat based diet to a vegetarian diet can see a shift in their microbiome in the first 24 to 48 hours. This shows that we have the ability to impact our microbiome based on the foods we eat. It also shows that we all have the capacity to have a “good” microbiome. It is also important to note that each person is different in their response to a particular diet. For example, some individuals can eat ice cream and pizza and have no change in their physiology, while others may have a terrible response.

Q. Talking about the “ideal” diet, is there really an “ideal” diet? What impact does an individual’s genetics or environmental factors have on the gut microbiome?

Dr. Sears: We are not very good at targeting the individual level. As a society we can’t afford the type of testing it would require to figure out exactly what each individual should and should not be eating. We really must rely on public health and what’s best for most people. In relation to genetics, it’s published that less than 10% of the effect in our microbiome is related to our genetic makeup. There’s a lot of redundancy in the microbiome. We can have three perfectly healthy individuals and when we sequence their microbiomes, they would all look totally different. In one person a certain bug may be taking up a niche and promoting the production of short-chain fatty acids and in another individual, a totally different bug could be doing the exact same thing.

Q. There has been a lot of research comparing the Mediterranean diet with the Western Diet, with the Mediterranean diet being rich in grains, fiber, fruit, vegetables, and fish meanwhile the Western diet is high in fat and red meat. Do you have any advice for individuals on what diet they should follow?

Dr. Sears: People should try and follow a Mediterranean diet or the DASH [Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension] diet. I’m a big fan of the idea that food is medicine.

Q. What would you like the public to know about the gut microbiome?

Dr. Sears: We are at least as many microbes as we are human cells but the microbes are just much smaller so the human cells are more evident. Microbes are critical to our overall health. Individual’s should strive to foster a good microbiome whether it’s on your skin, your mouth, or in your colon. There is also literature about the impact that exercise and physical activity can have on your gut microbiome as well as brain health and vascular health. The more an individual is focused on healthy living, the better they will be overall.

Q. What do you think is the future of this field?

Dr. Sears: The future direction in this field is immunotherapy, where we can use the microbiome as a biomarker. When you do a stool test or a plasma test the doctors will be able to tell you if you are more or less likely to respond to this therapy based on a microbial signal. This can relate to colorectal cancer because early-age onset colorectal cancer [EAO-CRC] is becoming frighteningly common but it is still rare enough that we are not doing colonoscopies on everyone under the age of 50. We can hopefully do something to see if a person is at a higher risk and then we can focus our care and try to prevent EAO-CRC. 

 

Here are some additional resources on diet and lifestyle and how they can influence your colon health and overall wellness:

  1. Healthy Inside and Out: How Diet and Lifestyle Impact Colorectal Cancer
  2. Dietary Mindfulness Can Reduce the Risk of Colorectal Cancer
  3. Could the Western Diet Be a Risk Factor for EAO-CRC?
  4. Have You Had Your Fiber Yet? Food Habits and the Risk of Colorectal Cancer

The Colon Cancer Foundation (CCF) spoke with Dr. Rami James Aoun, 11th winner of the Dr. Thomas K. Weber Colorectal Cancer Research Scholar Award, for his work looking at biomarkers of radiation response in rectal cancer patients. He is a surgical resident at The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center. Instituted in 2011 by CCF and the Society of Surgical Oncology to recognize translational research focused on the molecular biology of colorectal cancer, the award was renamed in 2020 to honor CCF’s founder, the late Dr. Thomas K. Weber.

Born in West Palm Beach, Florida, Dr. Aoun was raised in Beirut, Lebanon, where he was a student at the American University of Beirut. After completing his undergraduate years and medical school, Dr. Aoun joined Columbia University in New York where he received a Master of Public Health degree in Healthcare Management and Policy. As part of his ongoing residency at The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, he is completing a research fellowship with Dr. Matthew Kalady, a colorectal surgeon at The James Cancer Center.

Dr. Rami James Aoun

Q: What motivated you to work in the oncology research space, and colorectal cancer in particular?

Dr. Aoun: I am motivated to work in oncology research because I have seen some of my own family members suffer from cancer. However, what specifically interests me in colon cancer research are the patients that I encounter here at The James Cancer Center and my mentors. Their guidance when I was a junior resident was extremely important to set the direction for me as a future colorectal surgeon. That’s how I met Dr. Kalady, and now I am a part of his lab conducting research on colorectal cancer, with the goal of improving patient care outcomes.

Q: Can you summarize the significance of your findings for which you have received this award? Can you also share the prior work or observations that laid the foundation for this project?

Dr. Aoun: We observed a difference in how patients with rectal cancer reacted to neoadjuvant radiation therapy. Some of the patients who were exposed to neoadjuvant therapy had a complete response—the cancer disappeared. However, there were patients who had almost no response to the therapy. The response can be determined and graded by examining the tumor under a microscope. Patients who had a better response end up living longer without cancer.

We sought to identify the reason certain cancers responded to neoadjuvant radiation and certain cancers did not. To do that, we tried to understand these cancers at the genetic level by studying how a rectal cancer expressed particular genes, as measured by mRNA. By comparing the gene expression in both, patients who responded to radiation therapy and those who did not, we were able to obtain a gene signature that helps us identify patterns of gene expression that are different between responders and non-responders.

While this is just a starting point, it can help us develop a more predictive model to use clinically. Once we validate this model, we could be able to distinguish between a responder and non-responder to radiation based on the gene expression that we obtained from their biopsies even before any treatment is administered. This would allow us to provide individualized patient-specific therapy and avoid any unnecessary treatments and procedures.

We also think that certain genes in this signature can be further studied to see if they might be able to be blocked or changed to improve the response to treatment.

Q: What was the size of your current cohort and what is the ‘n’ that you are looking for to be able to validate your study results?

Dr. Aoun: Our ‘n’, or sample size, was 33 patients for this study. In genetic studies like this, it is difficult to design a statistical power needed to validate, but we hope to test this in about 100 different patients.

Q: Did you see any commonality in the gene signatures between rectal cancer and colon cancer?

Dr. Aoun: The gene signature we investigated was related to radiation resistance in rectal cancer, whereas colon cancer is not usually treated with radiation therapy. So, we did not study this for colon cancer. However, some of the pathways we identified are known to be relevant to colon cancer. In terms of the common pathways, what we know is the WNT pathway specifically is involved in the development and progression of colon cancer and rectal cancer. In the gene signature that we identified, six of the genes are involved in the WNT pathway. So, the question is whether the WNT pathway is also involved in radiation resistance in rectal cancer.

Q: Rectal cancer has been steadily increasing in the younger population. Do we know why that may be happening?

Dr. Aoun: An increasing number of younger patients are being afflicted with colorectal cancer and we don’t fully know why. There are lots of different theories about diet, lifestyle, and the microbiome (i.e. the bacterial content in the colon and rectum). This is a hot area of research and many groups are trying to figure out this question.

 

“This is a problem with a solution. The solution is awareness of the colorectal cancer problem and getting screened.”
– Dr. Thomas K. Weber, Founder, Colon Cancer Foundation

My late father Dr. Thomas Weber founded the Colon Cancer Foundation (CCF) because he recognized the power of preventing colorectal cancer and diagnosing it early through screenings. The screenings identify precancerous polyps and early stage growths that doctors can remove.

The CCF has now led the mission of raising awareness and increasing screenings for 19 years.

As we enter Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in March, you can take direct action today to solve the colorectal cancer problem and save lives:

Talk to your doctor about getting a colonoscopy if you are 45 years or older. If you are younger than 45 but have one or more family members that were diagnosed with colorectal cancer, ask your doctor if you should start screening earlier.

Participate and help increase visibility for CCF’s awareness campaigns and fund colorectal cancer screenings.

Donate Now: The funds collected through your fundraising efforts enable us to reach more people with life saving public awareness, prevention, and research programs.

Two Reasons to Show Your Support

Reason #1: Screenings were down due to COVID-19 but are beginning to pick up again. That’s great news, but it is critical that colonoscopy rates grow past pre-pandemic levels to save lives.

Reason #2:  Deaths from colorectal cancer in people ages 0-49 are increasing. Educating our friends and family with high risk factors can help identify and treat the disease in young people.

CCF’s March Awareness events, tools, and resources are designed to maximize the impact of your donations.

Thank you for taking action!

Sincerely,

Nick Weber

P.S. Your support, plus our ongoing work to mobilize the medical community to address colorectal cancer in young people with the Early-Age Onset Colorectal Cancer Summit, will make a difference!

Diet and lifestyle play a large role in colorectal cancer (CRC) prevention and prognosis. Dietary factors such as consumption of meat, sugary drinks, and alcohol, and lifestyle factors such as western diet patterns, being overweight or obese, physical inactivity, and smoking can add to the risk of CRC.

Diet and the Risk of CRC

A systematic review of multiple research studies has shown that a diet high in red and processed meats and low in fiber is a prominent risk factor for CRC and can lead to DNA damage, gut epithelial damage, cell proliferation, and genotoxicity from the nitrates that are added as a preservative. A diet high in red meat and processed food can be damaging for CRC patients and survivors and can increase the risk of mortality. 

Including fiber, vegetables, and fruits in the diet is definitely healthy and can also prevent CRC. The Mediterranean dietwhich includes fruits, vegetables, fish, and whole grains is a healthy preventive option to adopt in your food habits.

Research also points to a significant relationship between the consumption of processed meat and the development of early-age onset CRC (EAO-CRC), which developed among those younger than 50 years. A rapidly rising cancer across the globe, about 20% of EAO-CRC cases can be attributed to family history, and the remaining to other factors including diet and lifestyle.

  • Consumption of two or more sugary beverages per day doubles the risk of developing EAO-CRC in women 
  • An increase in consumption of sugary beverages in adolescence is associated with a 32% increased risk of developing EAO-CRC  
  • Consumption of sugary drinks is also known to increase the risk of mortality in CRC patients 
  • Alcohol consumption (greater than 14 drinks per week) also increases the risk of developing CRC.

Lifestyle Habits and the Risk of CRC

It is a well-known fact that a healthy lifestyle promotes health and well-being, while an unhealthy lifestyle can lead to health problems. Physical activity is important for overall health and studies point to physical inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle as major risk factors for CRC. Women who reported little to no physical activity after the age of 20 had a heightened risk of developing EAO-CRC.

Reduced physical activity can contribute to several different health problems, the most evident being obesity. Obesity modifies the gut microbiota leading to an increase in inflammation that damages the intestinal barrier. Obese and overweight individuals have a 42% higher risk of developing EAO-CRC than those at a healthy weight (an individual is considered to be a healthy weight if their BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9). There is also a correlation between obesity and the development of metabolic syndrome, which is a combination of multiple conditions that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Metabolic syndrome has been identified as a leading comorbidity in the development of EAO-CRC.

Smoking is also a significant risk factor in multiple cancers including CRC. Current smokers are at a higher risk of developing EAO-CRC, while past smokers may find their risk reduced. 

It is important to understand the significant role of diet and lifestyle in disease development. Maintaining a healthy diet, such as increasing fruit, vegetable, and fiber intake as well as decreasing one’s consumption of red meat, processed meat, and sugary beverages can prevent CRC. This, coupled with a healthy and active lifestyle can significantly reduce the risk of developing CRC. 

 

Abigail Parker is a Colon Cancer Prevention Intern with the Colon Cancer Foundation.

In 2013, The Bourbon Mafia was formed when a group of bourbon enthusiasts and industry professionals came together in their search for rare bourbon. About a year in, they realized that they could utilize their platform to raise money for causes that are near and dear to their hearts. With 42 members spanning 11 U.S. states, and two members in Australia, the organization has raised approximately $150,000 since 2014  for various charities, including the Colon Cancer Foundation (CCF). The Bourbon Mafia raises money through events, including bourbon raffles, dinners, and bottle auctions.

Brian Gelfo, one of the founding members and the  treasurer and secretary of the Bourbon Mafia, spoke with the Colon Cancer Foundation about their organization’s motivation for donating to CCF. Omar Marshall was one of the first classes brought into The Bourbon Mafia. Following his diagnosis of colorectal cancer (CRC) in 2020, he and his wife, Pam Marshall, decided they wanted to raise awareness around this disease. The initial goal of The Bourbon Mafia was to donate in his honor while Omar was still with them. Unfortunately, Omar lost his battle with CRC on January 18, 2021.

Robert Diaz (second from left) receiving a donation from The Bourbon Mafia on behalf of the Colon Cancer Foundation.

Nevertheless, a $30,000 donation was made to CCF in April 2021. Before Omar passed, he participated in a selection of a Four Roses Bourbon barrel that would be used for the donation. Mr. Gelfo highlighted an impactful statement by Robert Diaz who represented CCF at the engagement event: “This $30,000 donation can fund 1,000 colon cancer screenings.” Members of The Bourbon Mafia were gratified that their efforts could impact the lives of a thousand people. “Even if one finds out early and gets treated, it’s well worth it,” Mr. Gelfo said. 

According to Mr. Gelfo, many members in the bourbon industry, including fans and supporters, are predominantly older men. Through these events, The Bourbon Mafia hopes to raise awareness in the community for them to get screened.

This year, their event was held on 25th February, 2022, in Louisville, Kentucky, where they expected to raise a minimum of $10,000. Barrels will be hand selected from Starlight Distillery and guests will receive a sample of bourbon, a beer, and a bottle of bourbon to take home. Silent auction items will be donated by Mrs. Marshall and the family as well as other distilleries.

Mr. Marshall was buried on the farm under an oak tree from where he can watch over the farm, as he always wanted to. Mrs. Marshall emphasized the importance of early detection and being proactive for any type of cancer. “The Bourbon Mafia and bourbon itself has brought me into contact with so many wonderful people who share the same passion for bourbon and helping others,” she said.

 

Kenadi Kaewmanaprasert is an intern with the Colon Cancer Foundation.

We learn time and again that prevention is the best medicine, and this holds true for colorectal cancer (CRC). It is estimated that 50% of CRC cases can be prevented with diet and lifestyle modifications. Previous studies that looked at the relationship between CRC development and nutrition concluded that there is a strong correlation between diet and the development of certain types of cancer, specifically CRC. 

A recent study published in Preventive Medicine Reports investigated the impact that an insufficient diet plays in the development and prevalence of certain cancers as well as the effect that race and ethnicity has on diet.  Wholegrains, dietary fiber, non-starchy fruits, and vegetables, dairy products, milk, cheese, dietary calcium, coffee, and calcium supplements were found to be associated with preventing cancer development. The study examined population attributable factors and the number of excessive cases diagnosed in Texas in 2015 that were attributed to an inadequate diet, defined as a diet that does not meet or conform to the national or global dietary recommendations. 

With a diverse study population, the researchers had the opportunity to explore how race and ethnicity play into diet and thus contribute to the prevalence of cancers, specifically colorectal cancer (CRC).  

The study found:

  • While men were more likely than women to not follow guidelines on red and processed meat consumption.
  • Women were more likely to miss dietary recommendations on fiber and calcium intake.
  • A significant correlation between processed meats consumption and the prevalence of CRC and a connection between red meat consumption and the prevalence of CRC. 

There has been additional research conducted to show that there is a link between dietary fiber intake, and dietary calcium intake and the prevention of CRC. Looking at the racial and ethnic difference the study found that Non-Hispanic Whites consumed higher than the recommended dietary intake of red and processed meats. While it was found that Non-Hispanic Blacks were the most likely to have insufficient fiber and calcium intake.

In the Texas population, the authors found:

  • 3.3% of all new cancers (>3,428) could be attributed to an inadequate diet 
  • 34% of new CRC cases can be attributed to dietary insufficiencies 

The authors describe a similar correlation identified in an Australian population, where:

  • 17.6% of CRCs were related to an insufficient fiber level in diet 
  • 17.7% of CRCs were attributed to red and processed meats 
  • Men had a higher proportion of cancers attributable to an insufficient diet than women 
  • Excess consumption of processed meat contributed to 1,002 new cancer cases and red meat consumption contributed to 379 additional cancer cases 

This study along with multiple other studies conducted in relation to dietary factors and their contribution to cancer highlight the importance of dietespecially insufficient fiber intake and excess red or processed meat intakeon overall cancer burden.

 

Abigail Parker is a Colon Cancer Prevention Intern with the Colon Cancer Foundation.

patient consultation

The new year brought news of two success stories in our fight to increase accessibility to colorectal cancer (CRC) screening. The first, is a change in private insurance coverage requirements for colonoscopies. The second is from Kentucky, where a pharmacy protocol was passed to allow at-home fecal tests to be taken care of like a regular prescription. More details below.

Coverage for Screening Colonoscopy Without Cost Sharing

A document jointly released by the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Treasury on January 10th 2022 categorically states that private insurance plans are required to cover a follow-up colonoscopy after a positive non-invasive stool-based test or a direct visualization screening test, without any cost-sharing with respect to the colonoscopy for the health plan beneficiary. This coverage requirement will go into effect on May 31, 2022, one year after the updated recommendation on CRC screening was issued by the US Preventive Services Task Force

The Affordable Care Act requires health insurers to fully cover preventive screening. However, colonoscopies done after a stool-based test (such as FIT, gFOBT, or MT-sDNA/sDNA-FIT) were considered diagnostic and were not covered in the same way as decennial colonoscopies. This policy change however, is only applicable to private insurance holders; it does not apply to those who are enrolled in traditional Medicaid and Medicare plans.

Kentucky: Easy Access to Stool-Based Testing

On September 28, 2021, a new pharmacy protocol passed in the state of Kentucky will allow fecal immunochemical test (FIT) or stool DNA test (sDNA-FIT) to be taken care of at the pharmacy like a flu shot or regular prescription.

With the screening age for average-risk adults lowered to 45 years, it is important to eliminate the barriers for those who actually want and need screening. As we have seen over the last couple of years though, the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented many from getting the care that they need, including preventive care services. This bill has truly come at the right time. 

“Kentucky is the first state in the nation to have this type of protocol passed, and why not here?” said Dr. Whitney Jones, founder of the Colon Cancer Prevention Project, which is based out of Kentucky. “Colorectal cancer is treatable and preventable when caught early, and this new protocol will allow the general population more avenues to get screened on time.”

 

Gargi Patel is a Colon Cancer Prevention Intern with the Colon Cancer Foundation.

Immunotherapy aids your immune system to fight off cancer. There are five types of immunotherapy: treatment vaccines, immune checkpoint inhibitors, T-cell transfer therapy, monoclonal antibodies, and immune system modulators. While there have been no treatment vaccines approved for colorectal cancer (CRC) yet, BioNTech’s mRNA-based treatment vaccine has recently reached phase 2 clinical trials for CRC. The vaccine, individualized to each patient, is being developed as a treatment for CRC as well as to prevent relapse in those who have undergone CRC surgery. 

How Does Immunotherapy Work?

The immune system is built to detect and destroy abnormal/mutated cells. Tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes are often found around tumors and they are an indication that the immune system is working to eliminate the tumor. Cancer cells typically undergo genetic changes that allow them to escape the immune system—they often have proteins on their surface that inactivate immune cells, and they can even change cells surrounding them to interfere with the immune system. Therefore, a therapy that can train the immune system to identify and destroy cancer cells capable of defying the immune system is important.

Cancer Treatment Vaccines

Cancer treatment vaccines are designed for people who already have cancer, and trains their body’s immune system to find well-hidden cancer cells. These vaccines can be made in three different ways. 

  1. From the patient’s own cancer cells to cause an immune response against features that are unique to their cancer.
  2. From tumor-associated antigens that are found on cancer cells. These are made for cancer subtypes.
  3. From dendritic cells, which are a type of immune cell that respond to an antigen on tumor cells. This type of a vaccine is already being used for treating prostate cancer.

Matias Riihimäki et al. in their 2016 epidemiologic study published in Scientific Reports found that up to 18% of all CRC patients have recurrence and up to 25% have metastasis. A treatment vaccine would be able to help prevent recurrence and help patients with metastasis suppress small tumors that are often difficult to remove surgically.

BioNTech Chief Medical Officer and Co-founder Özlem Türeci, M.D., noted in a press release, “This trial is an important milestone in our efforts to bringing individualized immunotherapies to patients. Many cancers progress in such a way that the patient initially appears tumor-free after surgery, but after some time tumor foci that were initially invisible grow and form metastases. In this clinical trial in patients with colorectal cancer, we aim to identify high-risk patients with a blood test and investigate whether an individualized mRNA vaccine can prevent such relapses.”

Gargi Patel is a Colon Cancer Prevention Intern at the Colon Cancer Foundation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of life from schools to offices and, most importantly, healthcare. While certain things may have gone back to normal, the healthcare space continues to struggle. During a discussion at the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable (NCCRT) Annual Meeting, panelists shared how their respective organizations  adapted to the pandemic to ensure continued delivery of colorectal cancer (CRC) screening.

Rachel Issaka from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center kicked off the discussion with the history of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., starting with when the SARS-CoV-2 virus reached the U.S and the government declared a national emergency on March 13th, 2020, due to the rapid spread of the virus. A day later, on March 14th, the office of the U.S. Surgeon General advised hospitals to reschedule all elective procedures. Subsequently, the Gastroenterology Society released a statement that recommended all endoscopies and clinical practices be rescheduled along with other non-urgent procedures and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) recommended that healthcare systems prioritize urgent visits and delay elective care. The American Cancer Society (ACS) advised patients to postpone elective care, including cancer screenings, if they are at average risk for cancer and did not have any signs or symptoms. 

Following these recommendations, many adults delayed or avoided medical care. A study conducted in June 2020 by the CDC found that:

  • 41% of U.S. adults had delayed or avoided treatment
  • 12% had avoided urgent and emergency care 
  • 32% avoided routine care

Another study conducted in April 2020 found that cancer diagnoses decreased by 46% as compared to the year before, and CRC diagnoses dropped by 49%. The primary cause for this drop in diagnoses was delayed screenings for individuals who had symptoms but did not want to use the healthcare system during the pandemic. CRC screenings were down 25% between March of 2020 and March of 2021. It is estimated that these delays in screening and diagnoses will be responsible for an additional 4,500 deaths from CRC by the year 2030. 

Fortunately, organizations such as the Lincoln Community Health System in Newport, Oregon, recognized this growing gap in screening and diagnosis of CRC and came up with solutions. Jaraka Carver, LPN, from Lincoln Community Health Center, who was planning on running a CRC awareness campaign in March 2020, witnessed the project being derailed by the pandemic. Instead, after seeing the growing gap in CRC diagnosis she and her team implemented a bi-annual FIT mailing program to reach out to individuals and remind them that they were overdue for a CRC screening, and then sent them an at-home FIT test. Of the kits that were sent out:

  • 33.5% came back for testing, of which 15 came back as abnormal 
  • 30 individuals were referred for colonoscopies, 20 of whom completed the colonoscopy and 1 was diagnosed with cancer 

Virginia Mason Franciscan Health in the Pacific Northwest was also looking to increase CRC screenings among their constituents. Their divisional vice president, Michael Anderson, had partnered with ACS on a program to increase CRC screenings to 70%. However, once the pandemic hit, they had to change directions. With the goal of scheduling annual wellness visits during the pandemic, they specifically focused on vulnerable populations and clearly communicated Medicare’s new rule that a patient could complete a visit in person, online, or by phone. 

The organization also began reaching out to patients who were overdue for an annual visit and implemented a digital tool that helped prioritize patients by their likelihood of completing a CRC screening test. The program had a 40% success rate: they scheduled 5,300 annual wellness visits, completed 1,325 cancer screenings, and saved nearly 8.16 years of life. On a population level, this program allowed 41 more men and women to spend an extra year of life with their friends and family because they were screened for CRC. 

The panel concluded with a question and answer session where participants were able to ask the presenters questions regarding the effects of SARS-CoV-2 on CRC screenings. This meeting stressed the importance of annual screenings as well as the importance of adapting to different situations and needs, with a focus on ensuring that patients are able to achieve the best health outcome possible. 

 

*Additional Information on the NCCRT annual meeting can be found at 2021 80% in Every Community Conference & NCCRT Annual Meeting – National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable  

Presenters slides can be downloaded using this link https://nccrt.org/download/101349/ 

 

Abigail Parker is a Colon Cancer Prevention Intern with the Colon Cancer Foundation.