Challenge accepted: Markey strives to improve access to colorectal cancer screening across Kentucky

“Challenge accepted” is a series highlighting the work the Markey Cancer Center is doing to fight cancer in Kentucky and Appalachia. To learn more about how we’re helping Kentuckians live longer, fuller and healthier lives, read the latest Markey Cancer Center Annual Report. In this entry, we celebrate Colon Cancer Awareness Month by looking at Markey’s outreach efforts to combat this disease.

Thanks to screening tests like colonoscopies, colorectal cancer can be identified at its earliest stages when it’s most treatable. Unfortunately, many Kentuckians don’t take advantage of this opportunity.

In fact, in 2001, Kentucky had the highest rate of colorectal cancer in the United States, and was ranked 49 of the 50 states for colorectal cancer screening, said Tom Tucker, PhD, MPH, associate director for cancer prevention and control at the UK Markey Cancer Center.

This startling statistic spurred several major cancer groups in Kentucky into action, leading to the launch of a program encouraging primary care physicians to recommend and schedule colorectal screening. In rural areas of the state where primary care physician care is less common, individuals from the community were recruited for screening and asked to encourage their age-eligible friends to also be screened.

By 2008, the results of these efforts were clear.

“In seven years, we went from just over one-third of the population age 50 and older ever having had a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy to nearly two-thirds,” Tucker said, noting that the state also went from No. 49 in colorectal screening to No. 25, while colorectal cancer incidence rates dropped by 25 percent and mortality rates dropped by 30 percent.

But in spite of the progress, there is still much to do: A third of age-eligible Kentuckians are still not screened for colorectal cancer.

This year, Melissa Hounshell, the community outreach director for Markey, will focus her efforts on distributing FIT kits in the population centers where individuals are least likely to pursue screening. FIT kits are at-home tests that are then mailed to a lab, that screen for blood in the stool, a potential marker of colorectal cancer.

“Markey is committed more than ever to leading a comprehensive cancer screening education and prevention program,” Hounshell said. “It’s about reaching some of those people who have been unreachable and really embedding ourselves in the community.”


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