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Health navigators work to expand life-saving colorectal cancer screenings, education

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — March is dedicated to colorectal cancer awareness, but health experts want conversations and education about the disease to continue, especially in marginalized communities in Western New York.

Cancer screenings and early detection are critical to treating and beating colorectal cancer. Health experts estimate that, nationwide, routine colonoscopies have dropped as much as 90-percent during the pandemic, according to Dr. Mary Reid, Chief of Cancer Screening, Survivorship and Mentorship at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Dr. Reid says delayed or cancelled colorectal cancer screenings can lead to a 15-percent increase in the death rate in the years to come. Colorectal cancer is highly treatable if found at an early stage, and polyps can actually be removed before they turn to cancer.

There's a higher risk of colorectal cancer in Black and Brown communities — and often a higher death rate — so early detection is critically important.

A year ago, Univera Healthcare gave Roswell Park a $110,000 grant to expand colon cancer screenings to people who need them. 

The money is being used to fund a position at Neighborhood Health Centers in Buffalo for three years. 

The health navigator helps people make appointments for colonoscopies, walks them through the prep and what to expect, and answers any questions patients might have.

MORE: What are the warning signs of colorectal cancer?

One year into the program, the navigator is making a big difference in expanding life-saving screenings and education through Neighborhood Health Centers.

"It's such a big deal because our communities of color don't always have the access to screening. They have a lot of episodic care and tend to only come to us when they're sick, only when they need something, so I think the whole concept of prevention is new," said Dr. Ellis Gomez of the Neighborhood Health Center, Mattina site.

The navigator also helps with language barriers, so communication doesn't prevent people from seeking the care they need.

"I think it really makes a difference because it shows we are truly invested in our care. We are bringing them the best resources we can as a community to really get what they need," said Janette Evans, of the Neighborhood Health Center.

Early detection can save lives! There's a statewide program that provides free breast, cervical, and colon cancer screenings and education to eligible, uninsured and underinsured men and women.