Coalition against colon cancer builds in Hampton Roads

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — There’s a health threat in Hampton Roads so large that all four hospital systems, the health department and Eastern Virginia Medical School have joined forces with the American Cancer Society (ACS) to fight it.

Hampton Roads and northeastern North Carolina are among the nation’s three colon cancer hot spots, according to the ACS. That means more people are dying from colon and rectal cancers here than in most other places in the U.S.

Hampton Roads cities among hot spots for colon cancer

A report released last month also revealed that more young adults are being diagnosed with colon and rectal cancers.

Dr. Bruce Waldholtz with the South Atlantic Division of the ACS told what doctors believe is the cause behind the rise: “Obesity is the new smoking, absolutely.”

If Dr. Waldholtz could prescribe just one thing to prevent cancer, it would be a healthy diet and exercise.

Still, colon cancer can hide even in the healthiest looking people. Survivor Ellie Duarte remembers when she was diagnosed.

“First words out of my mouth: ‘I can’t die right now, I have too many things I have going on.'”

That was 20 years ago. Doctors diagnosed Duarte with stage four colon cancer at age 47.

Screenings are not recommended until age 50, but Dr. Waldholtz says that may change one day based on recent research.

“Looking at the groups of people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, colon and rectal cancer are increasing anywhere from one to three percent a year.”

Hampton Roads healthcare workers gathered in Norfolk to talk about how they’re tackling one of the areas toughest challenges: getting people screened. Dr. Waldholtz announced a new initiative.

“Partnering with our African-American churches in both Norfolk and Portsmouth, which are high risk areas. We’re going to be partnering with barbers and beauticians.”

Churches have already proved successful in helping with the fight against breast cancer and barbers helped cut hypertension with blood pressure checks in a Baltimore study years ago.

“We certainly aren’t going to train them on how to do colonoscopy, but what we will do is train them to become community health advocates,” Dr. Waldholtz said.

The goal is 80 percent screened by 2018. That, along with more healthy lifestyle choices, could knock Hampton Roads right off the hot spot map.