Giant Colon Tour Gives Unique Perspective on Cancer


Casey Kelly/KTOO

Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related death for both men and women in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. This year alone the society estimates 141-thousand Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and nearly 50-thousand people will die from it.

Regular colonoscopies and other screenings can help diagnose and prevent the disease. And while the number of people getting screened is on the rise, only about 50 percent of those for whom the testing is recommended report having it done as often as they should.

Casey Kelly has more on efforts to expand screening in Alaska.

(Nat sound in…)

Becky Koslovich and I are about to enter Nolan the Colon.

(04Colon1 :08s "Becky: Nolan is a 25 foot long, replica model of the human colon. Me: So, we’re going to take a walk through it, huh? Becky: Yeah we are. Me: Okay, let’s go." [nat sound fade under vox])

Koslovich works in outreach for the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. She and Nolan are on a tour of the region this spring to raise awareness for colorectal cancer screening.

(04Colon2 :03s "We start on this end. We don’t want to go in the end end.")

Once inside, Koslovich points to healthy colon tissue.

(04Colon3 :13s "It’s nice and smooth, pink, looks nice and clean. And to keep your colon healthy, don’t use tobacco, don’t smoke, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, stay physically active, and have your regular colon screenings.")

Starting at age 50, men and women should get regular colonoscopies every 10 years – more frequently if a doctor says you’re at high risk. Colonoscopies can detect and remove polyps, which if left alone can turn into cancer. Untreated colon cancer can grow outside the colon, and reach your lymph nodes.

(04Colon4 :07s "And your lymph system runs throughout your whole body. This provides a pathway, then, that the cancer can move to other parts of your body. We don’t want that.")

(Nat sound fade out)

(04Colon5 :10s "You can wait until somebody gets cancer, deal with the social costs, deal with family costs and deal with the economic costs, which are staggering. Or you can try and prevent cancer, which is cheaper.")

Anchorage State Representative Les Gara has introduced legislation to require Alaska’s retiree health care plan to cover the cost of colorectal screenings. They’re already covered for active state employees, and state law compels private insurance companies to cover the tests. Under the federal health care reform act passed by Congress last year, Medicare beneficiaries are entitled to one free test every 10 years. Gara says it doesn’t make sense for the state not to cover retired public employees.

(04Colon6 :12s "It’s close to insanity, because that’s the group that needs it those most. And the fact that the state has excluded that group of people from colon cancer screening, we think is the wrong way to go on public health.")

House Bill 11 has bipartisan support, and had a hearing in the Labor and Commerce Committee about three weeks ago. But Chairman Kurt Olson’s office says it may not come up again before the legislature adjourns. Gara thinks part of the resistance is due to a 4-million dollar per year price tag placed on it by the Parnell administration. He says the administration is overestimating the number of additional screenings the state would have to pay for if the bill passed.

(04Colon7 :03s "If they just measured the relevant group, they’d find it saves money.")

The state Administration Department cites a consultant’s report estimating that colorectal screenings covered by the state’s retiree plan would double under Gara’s bill. Acting Director of Retirement and Benefits Jim Puckett says he asked the consultants if they were confident in that figure.

(04Colon8 :21s "That’s my job! You know, if I have a doubt, I’m supposed to question, I’m supposed to push back on it. But they felt comfortable enough with the data that they said, hey, we’re going to stick with these numbers here. It’s not a matter of us being against preventive screening. Hey, we have no position on that. These are just the numbers.")

(Nat sound start to fade up under vox)

Gara’s bill is backed by the American Cancer Society, AARP and the Alaska Commission on Aging. Back at Nolan the Colon, Bob Doll – President of the Retired Public Employees of Alaska – sees an opportunity to spark legislative action.

(04Colon9 :14s "We should take the entire legislature through it. It would be a vivid demonstration to them of what the objective of all this is. That there is also a human dimension to it, which seldom is properly addressed.")

Lawmakers missed their chance to visit Nolan in Juneau. The next stop on his Southeast tour is April 23rd at the Haines Community Health Fair. He’ll be on Prince of Wales Island for several events in early May, and at a tribal health fair in Sitka on May 7th. In Juneau, I’m Casey Kelly. ###

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