Colon cancer is increasingly becoming a younger person’s disease, with 1 in 5 of 20–50-year-olds having colon cancer, according to Dr. Anton Bilchik, Chief of General Surgery, Director, Gastrointestinal and Hepatobiliary Program and Research, and Professor of Surgical Oncology at Saint John’s Health Center and Cancer Institute.

Screening for colon cancer previously was covered by insurances from the age of 50 and above; just recently it has been lowered to the age of 45.

“‘Lowering the colorectal cancer screening age to 45 is an important step as we look to save more lives from this preventable cancer’,” stated Dr. Bilchik (co-leading the Dream Team) in a recent press release by Providence Southern California and Saint John’s Cancer Institute. “‘But given the disproportionate impact on medically underserved communities, raising awareness for colorectal cancer and screening options remains critical. This team has a tremendous opportunity to create solutions that can be used as national models for integrated colorectal cancer outreach and screening’.”

Listen to Dr. Anton Bilchik on Stand Up to Cancer, Providence, & Chadwick Boseman

Dr. Anton Bilchik discusses Chadwick Boseman, SU2C, Providence, and Harvard, taking on colorectal cancer disparities in underserved communities. Video by Saint John’s Cancer Institute Marketing department.

Chadwick Boseman, who was a prominent A-list actor in Hollywood, was lost to colorectal cancer in August of 2020 due to the absence of screening. He was diagnosed at the age of 38 and recently passed on at the young age of 43, clearly younger than the just lowered screening age for colorectal cancer. It was his wish to spread awareness to others in his communities who are at a much higher risk for colon cancer. Chadwick was Dr. Bilchik’ s patient.

How will the Dream Team reach underserved communities?

By working with community leaders within underserved communities, an understanding between the gap of inequities and the health care system can begin to be bridged.

Pastor Rhonda Holbert, a prominent community leader in Inglewood, California, will be the first to lead the Los Angeles CHATs, Community Health Action Teams. She will help elevate colorectal cancer screenings in an effort to decrease the mortality of colorectal cancer in her community. Colonoscopies will be covered if you are uninsured, or underinsured. Meanwhile, what is emerging are DNA testing in stools, which are 92 percent accurate at detecting colon cancer. These tests will be administered first before a colonoscopy.

Part of her own initiative, Pastor Rhonda opens her home up to anyone burdened with cancer, she calls it, “Shepard’s Manor.” It’s a place for individuals going through their cancer journey to go. On their chemotherapy treatment days, she personally takes care of these individuals as if they are a family member. She calls it, “the Starbucks for cancer survivors.” Pastor Rhonda works at the Lincoln Memorial Church.

The Dream Team are also working with communities in greater Boston and the Great Plains Tribal Communities in South Dakota. As these populations have higher incidence rates for colorectal cancer, and are medically underserved.

The selected Dream Team, alongside Harvard, Providence, and Stand Up to Cancer, hope to establish how to address the increasing disparities in communities that have a lack of access to health care on a national level.

Why is there an increase in colon cancer in our youth, especially in underserved communities?

Given the recognizable health disparity among underserved communities, a fundamental lack of knowledge, limited primary care and access to, discrimination in the health care system, fears about confidentiality and misuse of data, continue to drive negative outcomes in communities across the US. There is also a lack of connections to health care, cost of transportation, and other access barriers.

Although researchers cannot answer the question of why there is an increase in colon cancer in our youth, the selected SU2C Dream Team’s research is aimed at finding an answer.

What is the goal of this initiative’s research?

The aims of the Dream Team’s study are, one; to increase screening rates by conducting a randomized, pragmatic, multi-component, two-armed study, comparing two population outreach approaches. Two; follow-up with patients using Cologuard kits and FIT screenings, and three; mentor a new generation.

“There is no effectiveness if health centers do not partner with community leaders. Since communities know best,” comments Pastor Rhonda. “It’s imperative to understand the way communities are understood,” she continues, in a webinar for CHATs, on February 1, 2022

The foundation of this project is to uphold Providence’s promise, to Know me, Care for Me, Ease my way.

Other readings:

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Eleanor Zeri