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Healthy Living

Getting Screened: Taking Charge Of Your Own Health May Save Your Life

Screening saves lives in the African-American community. That’s my urgent message this April, as we kick off National Minority Health Month and National Minority Cancer Awareness Week (beginning April 9).

Too many African-Americans are dying from preventable diseases, and the way to reverse this unacceptable trend is by taking advantage of prevention — most importantly, screenings for breast, lung and colon cancers.

It’s disheartening to report that African-Americans are more likely than other U.S. ethnic or racial groups to die from most cancers. We also die more quickly once diagnosed with cancer. This is tragic — and unnecessary.

That said, in the last couple of years these racial disparities have narrowed slightly for lung, prostate and colorectal cancer (in women). However, this gap has gotten worse for African-American women with breast cancer and remains alarming for colorectal cancer in men. This disparity is due to lack of access to adequate screening and treatment. While we work to improve access to better treatment, and believe me we are — African-Americans can help ourselves by getting screened for cancers more likely to kill us.

Breast Cancer

Roughly two-thirds of African-American women report getting a mammogram in the last two years. However, there is evidence that we may not be getting screened as often as we say we are. African-American women still have our cancers detected at a later stage than white women. This may be because we wait longer between mammograms and don’t immediately follow up when something suspicious is found.

So — please — follow the advice of the most major American medical organizations with expertise in breast cancer care, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), American College of Radiology (ACR) and Society of Breast Imaging (SBI), and get a mammogram every year starting at age 40. If you have a close relative (mother, sister, etc.) who has had breast cancer, talk to a doctor about getting tested earlier. Also — if your mammogram shows something suspicious, get back to your doctor quickly to get checked again. For more information, visit MammographySavesLives.org

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer accounts for the largest number of cancer deaths among African-American men (27 percent) and women (22 percent). Please take steps to stop smoking — the number one cause of lung cancer. Also take advantage of recent developments in lung cancer detection. Screening older current and former smokers annually with CT scans (or “CAT” scans) has been shown to significantly reduce lung cancer deaths. Private insurers and Medicare now cover these exams for those ages 55–80 with a history of heavy smoking (Medicare ends this coverage at 74). As lung cancer kills more people each year than breast, colon and prostate cancer combined, this test can save more lives than any cancer test in history — if those who need them actually use them. If you think you might benefit from this screening, talk to your doctor about it.

Colorectal Cancer

As I outlined in a previous post, colorectal cancer (CRC) is a leading cause of cancer death in African-Americans. But there is good news: Federal law now requires private insurers to cover less-invasive screening options like virtual colonoscopy — or CT colonography (see video). It generally spots cancers as well as standard colonoscopy. You don’t need to be sedated. You can go back to work afterward. And it is less expensive than a standard colonoscopy, which may allow more providers in underserved areas to offer this screening. Medicare does not yet cover the virtual exam, but colorectal cancer care groups, minority health care advocates and medical societies are urging Medicare to do so.

The point is — there are tests out there that can help you fight cancer — but only if we take advantage of them. Please get regular checkups. Watch what you eat and exercise. Talk to your doctor about regular screening and follow up quickly on anything found that is out of the ordinary. Together, we can make things better for ourselves, our families and friends.

For more information on the screening tests I have mentioned, visit Radiologyinfo.org. And, the easiest thing you can do this month is to share this article with your family and friends so they too can get informed, be involved and take action.