Rose Park resident, Teresa Williams, wears a pink face mask as she talks about losing her husband of almost 19 years, Layne Williams.
“We found out in the spring of 2012 – he was just 40 years old.” Though Layne was young, healthy and an avid runner, he had been experiencing abdominal discomfort for many years. He talked about it with his doctor and tried a variety of dietary changes, to no avail.
At one point, he asked his doctor if it could be cancer and they laughed because he was so young and healthy. He eventually ended up in the ER because he thought he was having a heart attack, but they found a tumor the size of a baseball. “He passed away in September of 2015,” Teresa explained, after a three-year battle with colorectal cancer.
For Luisa Auva’a Tupou, a Community Health Worker with the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition, colorectal cancer also hits close to home. Her 60-year old aunt is currently battling colorectal cancer and her 40-year old sister recently was experiencing symptoms, prompting her to obtain a colonoscopy in which several polyps were removed.
For people who have a history of colorectal cancer in their family, a colonoscopy screening is recommended younger than the average age of 50. Because Layne Williams was only 40 at the time of his diagnosis, his four children are recommended to receive colonoscopies at age 30.
Colorectal cancer is a deadly disease – it has a 14% survival rate if it is found late. However, if found early, it has a 90% survival rate.
The best way to detect colorectal cancer early is through screening, which is why Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) joined the National Screen to Save initiative. In the past two years, HCI has received funding to offer free screenings to some of the most at-risk communities in Utah, which include residents 50 years or older of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander descent and residents 50 years or older in certain rural counties.
Salt Lake City’s west side is home to many families of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Island descent. The Pacific Islander community has the lowest screening rates and the highest incidence and mortality rates of colorectal cancer out of all racial and ethnic groups in Utah.
Tupou explains that members of the Pacific Islander community often will not seek out medical attention until they are experiencing symptoms, which can often be too late. Compounding this health disparity is that the Pacific Islander community is an underserved population and in many cases a lack of transportation and health insurance can lead to a reduction of regular health care visits. It is not uncommon for older generations to have issues obtaining appropriate identification, and immigration status can be a factor as well in discouraging needed medical attention.
Nathaniel Ferre is a Community Health Educator with HCI and runs the Screen to Save Program. “There are two types of factors that contribute to colorectal cancer; family/personal history and lifestyle factors,” he said.
You are at higher risk for colorectal cancer if you are over the age of 50; if you have had a close relative diagnosed with colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps; and if you have been diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease, Lynch Syndrome, or Crohn's disease.
Lifestyle factors that may increase your risk of colorectal cancer include using tobacco in any form; lack of physical activity; a diet low in fiber and/or high in fat, processed, and red meats; and high alcohol consumption – more than 3 drinks per day for males and two for females.
The general recommendation is for all adults to get screened for colorectal cancer starting at age 50. Some lifestyle factors that contribute to colorectal cancer can be modified, but family and personal health history factors cannot be changed, which is why screening is so important.
The two most common ways to get screened are a FIT kit or colonoscopy. A FIT kit is an at-home stool test, free to qualifying participants of the Screen to Save program. No preparation is needed and it is meant for adults of average risk with no history of colorectal cancer or polyps. Results may indicate a need for a colonoscopy.
A colonoscopy is an examination used to detect changes or abnormalities in the large
intestine (colon) and rectum using a colonoscope. If necessary, polyps or other types of abnormal tissue can be removed to be checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
Both FIT kits and colonoscopies should be discussed with a person’s doctor and health insurance to determine what is covered and what is the best screening tool based on each individual’s situation.
While the Screen to Save program has a short video that provides education about colorectal cancer and screening in English and Spanish on their website, it is not yet available in other languages, so Tupou facilitates live Zoom sessions in Samoan.
Because the virtual format is often challenging for older generations, outreach is being directed on Instagram and TikTok, so that tech-savvy teens can help their parents and grandparents learn about the risks of colorectal cancers.
“If we can convince the younger generations about the importance of screening for colorectal cancers, they can convince their elders that this isn’t just about saving their lives, but the lives of their children and grandchildren as well, because the risk greatly increases for the siblings and children of those diagnosed with colorectal cancer,” said Tupou.
To find out more about Huntsman Cancer Institute’s Screen to Save program, visit https://redcap.link/communitycrc or contact Nathaniel Ferre, Community Health Educator at Huntsman Cancer Institute, , 801-540-0845.