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Dana-Farber program gets out the word about colorectal cancer

4/22/2009, 7:31 a.m.
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Actor Terrence Howard speaks with residents of Madison Park Village in Roxbury about colorectal cancer.

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute hopes to turn the tide of low colorectal cancer screening rates among people in the metro Boston area. While colorectal cancer is highly preventable if detected early, some racial and ethnic minorities, and the uninsured are much less likely to be screened.

Due in part to those low screening numbers, death rates from colorectal cancer are higher among blacks than whites, with 27 black men and 19 black women per 100,000 dying of the disease, compared to 25 white men and 17 white women.

These mortality rates are something actor Terrence Howard is all too familiar with. Howard was affected by colon cancer last year when his mother died from the disease at the age of 56. He now serves as the ambassador for the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance (NCCRA), and Stand Up To Cancer.

The actor recently visited Dana-Farber and toured the clinical areas and research labs. He also met with patients before visiting Madison Park Village in Roxbury, where he participated in activities as part of Dana-Farber’s “Open Doors to Health” program.

Open Doors to Health is based on the idea that these disparities can be reduced by a partnership between a cancer center and groups of minority and low-income residents. Since its launch almost five years ago, the program has created “health communities” in six affordable housing sites with peer leaders. These leaders, trained by Elizabeth Gonzalez-Suarez, Dana-Farber’s director of community health practice, have organized a variety of events such as discussion groups, walking clubs and health fairs in addition to meeting one-to-one with residents. At some sites, more than 100 people have participated in one or more of these events.

Serving as the glue between Dana-Farber and a population at high risk for the disease, Open Doors’ peer-leader volunteers inspire friends and neighbors to join walking clubs, take up aerobics, start dancing and receive colon cancer screenings. Because many peer leaders were already community advocates before the program began and are longtime residents of their housing developments, their neighbors are more likely to open doors to their knocks and minds to their message.

The program has been expanded to include a patient navigator to work closely with residents of all 12 sites and with patients at two Brigham and Women’s Hospital community health centers: Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center and Brookside Community Health Center, also in Jamaica Plain. The navigator will not only guide patients through the colonoscopy process, but also help them overcome some common barriers to a successful screening.

One such barrier, inadequate preparation for the procedure, will be addressed by educating residents and helping them obtain the necessary preparation products. The navigator will also ensure that residents have transportation to and from their appointments, meet with residents to allay concerns about the procedure and work with hospital staff to coordinate follow-up services. This approach can produce better outcomes for patients and reduce costs associated with improper preparation and high no-show rates for colonoscopies.

In addition to undergoing regular screenings, people can reduce their risk of colorectal cancer by eating a balanced diet that emphasizes fruits and vegetables while reducing consumption of fat and red meat, adopting a physically active lifestyle, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol consumption and not smoking.

Age is a major risk factor for colorectal cancer, with people who are age 50 and older accounting for more than 90 percent of new cases. Other risk factors include inflammatory bowel disease, a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps, a low-fiber and high-fat diet, a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, alcohol consumption and tobacco use.

For more information about colorectal cancer, visit Dana-Farber’s Web site at http://www.dana-farber.org/colorectal.

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is a principal teaching affiliate of the Harvard Medical School and is among the leading cancer research and care centers in the United States. It is a founding member of the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center (DF/HCC), a designated comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute.