March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, a rallying point for the colon cancer community where thousands of patients, survivors, caregivers and advocates throughout the country join together to spread awareness.
For Dr. Melissa Murphy, March is a very important month.
The chief of surgery at Kent Hospital, she has been a colorectal surgeon for the past eight years. She is passionate about breaking the stigma around colon cancer and encouraging patients to get screen regularly.
“Cancers detected early have a 90 percent survival rate,” Dr. Murphy said in an interview on Monday. “And colon cancer is largely a preventable one.”
Dr. Murphy works with a team of medial and radiation oncologists so patients are offered a multi-disciplinary approach to necessary cancer care. In addition to being a part of the surgical program at Kent, she is also on the surgical staff at Women and Infants Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
According to Dr. Murphy, 4 percent of men and women will develop colon cancer. It is the third most common cancer and cause of mortality in the country, and the second for both men and women. For Black patients, the risk of colon cancer and mortality rate is higher. Black patients are 20 percent more likely to get colon cancer and 40 percent more like to die from it than other racial and ethnic groups.
Dr. Murphy urges people to get screened regularly, particularly if they have a family history of, or genetic disposition to, colon cancer. The National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable (NCCRT) put forth the “80% in Every Community” initiative to emphasize the importance of screening 80 percent of the population nationally.
According to the NCCRT website, not everyone is screened equally. “There are still too many communities with lower colorectal cancer screening rates – rural communities, certain racial and ethnic communities, low income communities,” the NCCRT website says. The organization is committed to breaking down barriers to screening.
Massachusetts has the highest colon cancer screening rate, already screening over 76 percent of the eligible population. According to Dr. Murphy, Rhode Island is not far behind, with about 75 percent of the eligible population screened.
Some risk factors for colon cancer include obesity, physical inactivity, low-fiber diets and smoking. “All modifiable risk factors that we can work towards eliminating,” Dr. Murphy said.
It is recommended that people aged 50 and over regularly screen for colon cancer. However, Dr. Murphy says those with genetic predispositions are screened starting as young as 15 years old.
She also explained that current health guidelines advocate for the recommended screening age to drop to 45 years old, although not all insurance companies have caught on to the change.
Patients have options for initial screenings.
There are stool-based tests, like Cologuard, that can detect genetics to determine a predisposition of the disease. There are also FIT-DNA tests, which can also determine if the patient has antibodies.
Then, there is the “gold standard” of colon screenings, according to Dr. Murphy – the colonoscopy. She says the colonoscopy is both diagnostic and therapeutic, maybe not for the patient, but for specialists to fully assess any polyps that are found. She says that polyps can easily be removed, but it’s important for those to be found early.
However, Dr. Murphy has also found increased stigma when talking about colonoscopies.
“For something that is largely preventable, it is something people are nervous about,” she said. “The more we talk about it and make it a norm in the conversation, the more we standardize it. The more we ask these questions and talk about it, more people will be comfortable getting screened and encouraging family members to do the same.”
Dr. Murphy spoke about Chadwick Boseman, an actor who died due to stage-four colon cancer late last year. He was only 43.
“That really drives it home for some people. He was the Black Panther; he was a superhero. We just want to keep everyone healthy.”
Dr. Murphy also explained that because of COVID, people are putting off routine doctor appointments and screenings, but she wants to emphasize that “hospitals are safe, we follow all the guidelines, and it’s time to refocus on individual health.”
“There can be significant ramifications in the future,” she said, “so it’s important to get screened now.”