In partnership with the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine and the City of Houston, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Project CHURCH (Creating a Higher Understanding of Cancer Research and Community Health) hosted a colorectal cancer awareness play Wednesday at St. Luke the Evangelist Episcopal Church.
As part of the National Cancer Institute’s Screen to Save initiative, MD Anderson and other TMC member institutions were charged with getting 100 extra people screened for colorectal cancer by the end of the year. Screen to Save seeks to increase colorectal cancer screenings in racially and ethnically diverse communities, which aligns with Project CHURCH’s mission to better understand how environmental and social factors impact minority health and cancer-related disparities.
The 60-minute play, titled “The Marriage Test,” was written and produced by Thomas Meloncon, associate professor and department director of visual and performing arts at Texas Southern University, to educate the African-American community about colorectal cancer. It tells the story of a soon-to-be-married couple’s struggle to mentally cope with the news of a former flame’s colorectal cancer diagnosis. While the play focuses on the couple’s relationship woes, Meloncon weaves humor and colorectal cancer facts throughout the play’s dialogue to emphasize the need and urgency for screening and early detection.
Members of surrounding senior centers, employees from Texas Southern University and residents in the Third Ward area were invited to attend the play.
“By inviting people out there, it doesn’t make you feel like you’re going to a hospital or a school. You still feel like you’re in the community,” said Terrence Adams, health education specialist at MD Anderson’s Project CHURCH. “You still feel like it’s something fun to do, but you learn something along the way.”
Colorectal cancer typically begins with a growth on the inner surface of the colon, called a “polyp.” Polyps are often benign, non-cancerous growths, however pre-cancerous polyps, called adenomas or adenomatous polyps, can develop into colon cancer if not removed. Colorectal cancer can also develop from abnormal cells in the colon or rectum lining.
Colorectal cancer is often asymptomatic and can only be detected with a stool test, sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy or CT colonography. Because people affected by colorectal cancer don’t exhibit any physical symptoms, experts are urging people to be more proactive about screening.
“There’s this notion of, ‘I feel fine. I would know if I had cancer,’” said Milena Gould Suarez, M.D., associate professor of medicine-gastroenterology at Baylor. “I think what we really need is to drive home this message that it’s important to be screened because you don’t know that.”
According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in both men and women. Each year, the ACS estimates 95,520 new cases of colon cancer and 39,910 new cases of rectal cancer.
In the United States, colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women, behind lung cancer and breast cancer, and second leading cause in men, behind lung cancer. Cancer experts estimate 50,260 colorectal cancer-related deaths in 2017, but thanks to more screenings for early colorectal polyp detection and more advanced treatment options, the death rate has steadily decreased since 1980, with currently more than 1 million colorectal cancer survivors in the country.
And while the trend seems to be improving overall, cancer—including but not limited to colorectal cancer—affects the African-American population the hardest. Compared to other ethnic groups, they have the highest death and shortest survival rates for most cancers in the U.S., making outreach initiatives—such as Screen to Save—all the more important.
Certain lifestyle factors—including obesity, physical inactivity, high-fat and high-cholesterol diets lacking in fruits and vegetables, smoking and heavy alcohol use—can increase a person’s risk for developing colorectal cancer. Other factors include older age, a family history of colorectal cancer and inflammatory bowel disease.
The general rule of thumb is to get a colonoscopy at 50, but because of the higher incidence rate in the African-American population, the American College of Gastroenterology and other experts recommend screening at 45 years old.
After the play, attendees were given informational handouts and free at-home screening kits, which can detect any type of blood or abnormality in the sample. The prepaid postage kits included a card that people can use to place a stool sample on and send off to a lab.
In addition, Hope Through Grace, a nonprofit organization that spreads colorectal cancer awareness, provided a 20-foot-long, 8-foot-high inflatable replica of the human colon for participants to walk through. The colon allowed people to view, up close and personal, the different types of polyps and the progression of colorectal cancer.
“Sometimes hearing ‘polyps’ and different [terms] like that doesn’t really mean anything to you, but to actually walk through it and see it gives you that understanding,” Adams said. “Hopefully, this [and the] play will inspire them.”
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