March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. According to the National Cancer Institute, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer found in both men and women in the United States, representing 8 out of every 100 new cancer cases. While the overall incidence of colorectal cancer has declined over the past few decades, both incidents and death rates of colorectal cancer in younger men and women, ages 20-49, are increasing. Access to new treatments and early detection are critical steps to improving outcomes.

Through a partnership with the Colon Cancer Coalition and local community organizations, Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute is promoting prevention and early detection of colorectal cancer through its FIT For Life program. Thanks to a recent $17,000 grant from the Colon Cancer Coalition, residents of Mecklenburg, Gaston, Union, and Lincoln Counties will continue to have improved access to life-saving colorectal cancer screenings and follow-up care. To date, the outreach program has provided comprehensive colorectal cancer education for 400 underserved and uninsured individuals, as well as 235 patient screenings and 13 follow-up colonoscopies.

Patient Betty Dillingham is grateful for Tiffany Crank, a Cancer Program Development Specialist at LCI, and the FIT For Life program. Photo taken prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

Each program participant is closely navigated by a Cancer Program Development Specialist to identify any other barriers to care and is connected to community resources that can help improve their overall health and quality of life. One FIT For Life participant shared she lost weight and quit smoking with help from the program. In addition to receiving a colorectal cancer screening, she also received a free skin cancer screening, which resulted in a biopsy for a worrisome spot on her leg.

Another program participant, named Maryann, shared, “I found myself without a job and insurance at age 64. I needed a colonoscopy due to finding some blood in my stool sample. I did not know where to turn when my doctor told me about contacting Levine Cancer Institute. I will be forever grateful to Levine Cancer Institute and Josh McClure for getting the bills taken care of. Their kindness and generosity overwhelmed me with gratitude. Words cannot express the relief I felt when they stepped in to help.”

Levine Cancer Institute’s Disparities and Outreach team works closely with community partners to ensure the program is targeting individuals who will benefit most from the program. Current community partners include Gaston Family Health Services, Cancer Services of Gaston County, Latin American Coalition, St. Gabriel Church, Stuart Cramer High School, City of Gastonia, Shelter Health Services, and Elizabeth Family Medicine.

“Organizations like the Colon Cancer Coalition that directly support underserved patients in the communities we serve are critical to helping us fulfill our goal of providing high quality care and navigation for all,” shared Cacky Higgins, project manager for the Disparities and Outreach program at Levine Cancer Institute. “Building relationships with our patients based on trust enables us to better serve and connect individuals to resources in their own communities that will improve overall quality of life. This strong foundation will ultimately lead to better outcomes if the patient is diagnosed with cancer in the future.”

The Colon Cancer Coalition has supported the FIT For Life program since 2019, granting $67,000 to fund free education and screenings in our communities. With the commitment of our partners, Levine Cancer Institute’s Disparities & Outreach team will continue providing care and community resources for underserved and uninsured individuals to help improve health outcomes for all.