PUBLISHED: 4:06 PM on Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Black women at higher risk for colon cancer
Annette Jackson, 42, of Savannah never had a colonoscopy or any colon cancer screening before she was diagnosed with colon cancer last year.

Jackson didn't realize her status as a black woman put her at the greatest risk of developing and dying from colon cancer than any gender or race.

She's not alone.

A Harris poll released in March found that 96 percent of black women don't realize they are at a higher risk of developing and dying from colorectal cancer.

The survey included 505 U.S. black females from across the nation, ages 40 and older, who have never been diagnosed with cancer.

The online survey was done in February on behalf of the National Women's Health Resource Center and the Black Women's Health Imperative.

In response to the survey findings, both groups started an educational initiative to confront the reasons why black women aren't getting screened or seeking treatment; and to help them recognize their heightened risk. It's called African-American Women Dare to Be Aware.

Black women have a 17 percent higher colorectal cancer incidence rate than Caucasian women, according to Dare to Be Aware.

And if they are diagnosed with colon cancer, their chances of surviving are worse than other groups.

Black women have a mortality rate 40 percent higher than Caucasian women.

But when colorectal cancer is detected early, the five-year survival rate in all blacks is 83 percent.

Reasons for high incidences of colon cancer among black women are unclear but have been attributed to lack of fiber in diet and an increased amount of fat in diet, said Dr. Edith Mitchell, clinical professor of medicine and program leader in gastrointestinal oncology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

She's involved in the awareness program.

"But we really don't know the reason for the higher incidence and higher mortality rate," Mitchell said.

"What we do know, Mitchell said, "is African-American women need to undergo colon cancer screening more frequently so the cancers can be found at an earlier stage."

Mitchell said 70 percent of black women over the age of 45 are not getting potentially life-saving screenings for colorectal cancer.

Black women should start screening at 45, Mitchell said, referring to the American College of Gastroenterology's screening guidelines.

That's five years earlier than the recommended age for people of average risk.

But black women with a family history of colon cancer or who have experienced other conditions that put them at risk should talk with their physician about whether to start screenings even earlier, Mitchell said.

Jackson's story shows colon cancer is treatable.

One of an estimated 8,560 U.S. black women diagnosed with colon cancer in 2005, Jackson underwent surgery to have the cancer removed.

Today, she takes oral chemotherapy pills daily. Oral chemo allows her to continue working at her job at Susan Mason's Catering and spend time with her husband, three children and grandchild. Jackson said she's cancer free and is urging everyone she knows, including her five siblings, to get checked.

"But they are like I used to be. People just don't want to hear it and they just don't want to do go the doctor," Jackson said.

Too often blacks don't have colon cancer screening because of lack of health care access; socioeconomic factors; fear and lack of awareness of their heightened risk, according to Dare to Be Aware.

Jackson has a family history of colon cancer, which means she possibly should have started screenings earlier than 45.

She didn't go to the doctor until she experienced two months of severe digestion problems, weight loss and stomach pain.

"If I hadn't gotten real sick, I wouldn't have gotten regular checks either. But now, I go," said Jackson.

"Every time I catch a cold I am going to be at the doctor now."

She'll be sure to have her children - ages 22, 21, and 16 - start inquiring about screenings as early as 30.

"I am going to be around to make sure my children are getting checked."