Christian County had 155 new cases of colon cancer in the years between 2012 and 2016, according to statistics that are the most recent available for a health issue that has hit hard in the Bluegrass.

Kentucky has ranked No. 1 for incidents of colon cancer, although one local physician noted that things are trending downward in recent years since more people are choosing to have colon cancer screenings.

"No one should have to die from colon cancer because it's preventable," noted Dr. Jeff Riggs, a gastroenterologist at Jennie Stuart Medical Group who says he believes the screenings are very important.

State funds have currently been made available to help people get colonoscopies at no cost if they meet certain eligibility requirements.

Kentucky CancerLink, which assists people who are having trouble obtaining the screenings, received the funds from the Kentucky Colon Cancer Screening Program at the Kentucky Department for Public Health, said Melissa Karrer, that organization's assistant director.

Karrer explained that funds in the state budget are allotted to the screening program and will be available this time through June.

Additionally, she said officials are hoping that funds to continue the program will be included in the current budget with Gov. Andy Beshear.

Karrer said this is the first six months involving a new approach to colon cancer screening that focuses on free colonoscopies. In the past, the emphasis was on free home screenings for the cancer, she said.

Karrer noted that are five facilities throughout the state where people can get their free colonoscopies through the state-funded effort, including the Community Medical Clinic in Princeton that will provide the service for residents of Christian, Todd and Trigg counties.

Karrer said her facility will direct people to places where they can have the procedure performed; she said the free screenings are for uninsured and under-insured people, and Karrer noted that they can also benefit Medicare recipients who don't have Part B coverage.

This year also reflects a change in the recommended age for having a screening for colon cancer, according to Karrer. She said Kentucky has now lowered the age to begin the screenings from 50 to 45.

Karrer noted that taking care of oneself, getting good exercise and "trying to eat the best you can" are strategies that help prevent cancer, but she said the screenings reveal polyps that can then be removed.

Riggs said obesity, diets high in red meat and fat, smoking and drinking are factors that can increase the risk for colon cancer.

He noted that Caucasians with no risk factors for colon cancer can start their screenings at age 50, although individuals with a family history of irritable bowel disease, for example, could start much earlier.

Riggs added that African-Americans, who have a much higher risk for colon cancer overall, should start colon cancer screenings at age 45.

The doctor noted that Christian County is "a little bit below the state average" for incidents of colon cancer when compared with the most recent statistics, and he attributed that improvement to the screenings.

"As a result, people are surviving much longer," he said.

Riggs noted that patients at Jennie Stuart who need help paying for the procedure may also utilize the Princeton clinic, which then refers them to Riggs' office in Hopkinsville for a consultation and procedure.

Billing is taken care of through the Community Medical Clinic, he said, noting that patients may contact that facility to see if they qualify.

At the Christian County Health Department, individuals interested in screening for colon cancer may complete a preliminary questionnaire.

If that questionnaire reveals any red flags, a FIT test, or fecal immunochemical test, is done to acquire a stool sample.

Both of these procedures are offered free of charge, and if the stool sample reveals blood (an early sign of cancer), the patients are referred for treatment, according to Amanda Bassingthwaite, who handles instructional design and marketing for the local health department.

She said people will be brought in to help those patients get the treatment they need, or they'll be referred to St. Luke Free Clinic.

Bassingthwaite noted that the health department has been providing its FIT test for the past four or five years, but she said she doesn't think people utilize it as much as they could; the fecal exams, she observed, are not one of the local health department's larger programs.

"It's one of those cancers people really don't think of," Bassingthwaite said of people's perceptions about colon cancer.

Contact the Christian County Health Department at 270-887-4160 for more information about its questionnaire and FIT tests.

To see if you're eligible for financial help offered through the Community Medical Clinic at Princeton, call that facility at 270-365-0227 and ask for Paula. For information about Kentucky CancerLink and the assistance it offers, call 877-597-4655 or visit kycancerlink.org.

Additionally, for more information about colon cancer symptoms and risk factors, visit cdc.gov/cancer/colorectal.

Reach Tonya S. Grace at 270-887-3240 or tgrace@kentuckynewera.com.

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