Doing more — Gastroenterologists should go beyond their office to promote CRC screening

It's a rainy day in New York City; three people representing the Colon Cancer Coalition stand on the street holding signs attempting to educate young adults about colorectal cancer. A young man walks by, "Colon, that's by your lungs, right?"

"What?" Colon Cancer Coalition Communications Director Erin Peterson asked. The man replied, "'Co-lung, it's by your lung. It helps you breath.'"

Beyond a clinical problem
Health literacy is one of the biggest issues the Coalition faces when talking about colon cancer, Ms. Peterson said.

A nationwide screening advocacy organization the Coalition was started in 2004 when Kristin Lindquist organized a 5K race in honor of her sister, Susie Lindquist Mjelde, who died of colon cancer. After the success of the first race, the group now holds events across the country focused on increasing colon cancer screening and raising awareness.

Despite being the third most common and second deadliest cancer in the world1, public knowledge surrounding colon cancer isn't as widespread as believed, Ms. Peterson said. Going back to that day in New York City, the young man wasn't alone with his uncertainty either. In the subway, a woman came up to the group and said, "I have high cholesterol," unsure of what the colon or what colorectal cancer was. Again, they shared their story.

"Health literacy is a big barrier in raising awareness," Ms. Peterson said. "In the advocacy world, we talk to a lot of the same people all the time. Our goal is to find new ways to reach the unengaged. The more partners we bring in, the more awareness activities we can support to really reach people and talk about screening and how it can save a life."

Ms. Peterson isn't alone in her belief that more can be done to increase colon cancer-related health literacy. Chicago-based Advocate Illinois Masonic Digestive Health Institute's Medical Director of Digestive Health Andrew Albert, MD, MPH, said gastroenterologists could be doing more to promote screening.

A vocal activist, Dr. Albert and his fellow physicians frequently go out into the community, everywhere from underserved areas to some of Chicago's most bustling skyscrapers, to inform the public about colon cancer.

"Many people in the past year have relayed to us that they don't know what the colon is or what it does," Dr. Albert said. "Even when giving talks in firms downtown I get asked by people of all education levels, 'Can you tell me where the colon is?' … We can talk about screening all day long, but if the reality is you don't know what your colon is, how do you know to screen it in the first place?"

The solution
The good news is the solution to America's health literacy deficiency is an easy one; get involved.

"There are tons of partners out there that would love the opportunity to work with gastroenterologists with all of their resources," Dr. Albert said. "There are so many advocacy groups with survivor and cancer patients that would love the opportunity to have a physician join in their efforts to educate the community. They need a [physician] champion to emphasize the importance of the message."

Patients gets their information from an array of places — be it television, radio, newspapers, social media, the internet, family, friends and in general discussions. Dr. Albert encourages gastroenterologists to engage in the conversation, and find a place to go and share their knowledge instead of waiting for patients to come to them.

The Colon Cancer Coalition is one place gastroenterologists can get involved. "Getting as many physicians as we can engaged and talking about colon cancer and doing awareness campaigns is incredibly important," Ms. Peterson said.

The Coalition has about 40 events scheduled across the U.S. in 2019. The group welcomes anyone interested to reach out for more information. Additionally, the Coalition developed a series of free awareness materials written at a level that's easy for most people to understand. The Coalition also partners with physicians and medical groups to co-brand the material and put their logos on the pamphlets. All for free.

March is National Colon Cancer Awareness Month, and multiple organizations will be holding advocacy events through the month. But when the calendar hits April 1, it's just as important for gastroenterologists to promote colon cancer awareness and continue a dialogue with the community.

"I think when it comes to colon cancer screening, we oftentimes meet people when it's too late," Dr. Albert said. "It's important for us to carve out time from our clinical schedules — whether it's an hour a month; an hour a year or even an hour a week — to dedicate to the mission of preventing colon cancer."

1 According to 2018 World Health Organization statistics

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