When Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) and Exact Sciences began discussing a unique collaboration that would propel colorectal cancer screening awareness and research, we knew there was a lot at stake. It was toward the end of 2020 and not only was Covid-19 spiking across the country, but cancer screening rates were decreasing as people delayed routine medical appointments. Additionally, we were – and still are – troubled by the longstanding inequities that have left communities of color shouldering the burden of the pandemic. The similarities between Covid-19 disparities and the inequities we’ve seen in cancer outcomes for decades – particularly in certain cancer types like colorectal cancer – are stark and unacceptable.
On top of that, the passing of a high-profile actor from early onset colorectal cancer drew national attention to the alarming increase of the disease in younger people.
So, we asked ourselves: how can our organizations leverage our collective strengths to make a difference?
Our answer was a bold multi-pronged approach, supported by an unrestricted grant to SU2C from Exact Sciences, to make colorectal cancer prevention more of a mainstream issue, with a focus on communities that are traditionally underserved by our medical system. We simply cannot see more people impacted by colorectal cancer, which is one of the most preventable cancers with routine screening, and 90% survivable when caught early.
Combining cutting-edge research, collaborations with advocacy groups and compelling awareness efforts designed to reach diverse stakeholder groups in medically underserved communities as well as healthcare providers, we are driving one clear message home: colorectal cancer screening saves lives.
The research supported by our initiative will include a “Dream Team” of investigators, chosen by SU2C, at institutions that serve medically underserved communities. By pinpointing the unique local needs of those areas, and defining and measuring tailored interventions that address these needs (including providing free screenings), the Dream Team will transform participating at-risk communities into ‘Stand Up To Cancer Zones’ with high rates of colorectal cancer screening.
Our goal for increasing screenings aligns with the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable (NCCRT) and their 80% In Every Community campaign, which is working to ensure that at least 80% of eligible adults are being regularly screened for colorectal cancer. Since the launch of the NCCRT’s campaign in 2019, this outstanding multi-stakeholder approach has resulted in more than 1,700 organizations committing to work toward this shared goal. This is exactly the kind of collaborative and big-picture thinking needed to increase screening and save lives.
To reach this goal and exponentially decrease the number of new and fatal colorectal cancers, we must have broader awareness about screening benefits and options. Efforts to raise awareness need to focus on sharing information about colorectal cancer screening options, as well as how critical it is to prioritize screening.
Even though we know screening saves lives, one in three adults are not getting screened – and that’s in a typical year. This past year has been anything but typical; for example, the total number of colonoscopies plummeted by 90% around the onset of pandemic-related stay-at-home orders in 2020.
While we are seeing screening rates rebound now, the medical community still needs to stay diligent about encouraging patients to stay up to date with colorectal cancer screening while also finding ways to increase the number of screenings that would typically happen in a non-pandemic environment. To do that, we must ensure that patients are informed about all recommended screening tests and, importantly, that the recommended screening age has been lowered from 50 to 45 by the United States Preventive Services Task Force. Screening options include both office-based and at-home options that meet each individual’s specific needs and preferences, particularly during the current pandemic when onsite appointments may be harder to schedule, and associated with greater anxiety. In our minds, the best screening option is the one that gets done.
Raising awareness for colorectal cancer screenings in medically underserved communities is an imperative for any organization working to improve health equity. We’re hoping other collaborators, including community advocacy groups, health care companies and delivery systems, and insurers, will join us to help drive this movement forward and affect real change.
As we continue to navigate the complex challenges of healthcare inequity, which have been exacerbated by the global pandemic, for those of us working in cancer research and treatment, one thing is clear – too many people continue to lose their lives and loved ones to colorectal cancer. Moving toward a post-Covid-19 environment, we must harness the healthcare community’s innovation and momentum necessitated by the pandemic to solve another crisis: increased colorectal cancer burden resulting from delayed screenings. United, we can turn the tide on colorectal cancer and have a country where people aren’t dying from a disease that’s preventable, treatable and survivable if it’s caught early.
Photo: Gerasimov174, Getty Images