Health & Fitness

Cancer is the leading cause of death in Thurston County. Have you been screened?

According to the 2017 Thurston County death certificates, cancer is the leading cause of death in Thurston County.

Part of treating any disease is determining whether someone has the disease. In general, the earlier a disease is discovered, the easier and more effective the treatment. This is where something called “screening” comes in.

In many cases a person can have cancer for a long time before they begin to see symptoms that tell them they’re ill. Screening is the process of testing someone for cancer (or another disease) before they have symptoms of the disease. Often people who are considered to be at higher risk for a particular kind of cancer will be screened sooner or more frequently than others.

In fact, according to the Guide to Community Preventative Services, early detection can save lives, and also may make a big difference in a person’s long-term health and recovery.

Nonetheless, 15 percent to 40 percent of those who are eligible for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer screenings are not up to date with their screenings. About half of all colorectal and cervical cancers, and a third of breast cancers, aren’t diagnosed until a late stage, when they are more difficult to treat.

By looking at the Behavioral Risk Factor Survey of 2016, it’s clear that more screening is needed in Thurston County:

  • 69 percent of Thurston County women 40 years old or older had a mammogram in the past two years.

  • 81 percent of Thurston County women ages 21 to 65 had a pap smear in the past three years.

  • 72 percent of Thurston County residents age 50 to 75 had undergone colorectal cancer screening.

Some people may not be getting screened because they don’t have health insurance. In most cases, Medicare does cover disease screenings – as do most health insurance plans, though it’s always a good idea to call ahead to be certain.

Some groups of people, however, are less likely to get screened for reasons related to health disparities. In May, Thurston County Public Health & Social Services joined the Community Action Council, a regional partnership led by Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center in Seattle, to try and reduce cancer health disparities. Cancer is experienced differently in our region among people of color. In Thurston County, for example, Native American and African American residents are more likely to die from cancer compared to other ethnic groups.

Health disparities are important to understand and address, and we know that every type of cancer is different. There are different risk groups for each one, but in every case, catching the disease early means a better chance of recovery. The best first step is to talk with your health care provider to decide together which screenings, if any, are right for you.

  • Breast Cancer: A mammogram (an x-ray of the breast) is used to screen for breast cancer. Women who are between the ages of 50 and 74 should get a mammogram every two years. Woman who are at higher risk because of a strong history of breast cancer in the family may need to be screened more often, or at a younger age. In addition, it’s a good idea for women to be familiar enough with their own breasts to be able to notice changes. Any concerns should be shared with your health care provider.
  • Cervical Cancer: Screening for cervical cancer is through a PAP test that looks for abnormal cells in the cervix. A different test may be used to screen for HPV infection (human papillomavirus). HPV is thought to cause almost all cervical cancer. Average-risk women should start having PAP tests when they are 21. If the results are normal, you may only need to screen every three years. If you are 30 years old to 65, you may need both a PAP test and a HPV test. Talk with your health care provider to determine which screening option is best for you, and how frequently you will need to be screened.
  • Colorectal (Colon) Cancer: Screening looks for polyps (growths) that can turn into cancer. There are several tests that can screen for colorectal cancer, so talk to your health care provider about what test is right for you. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that people between the ages of 50 and 75 be screened. Some health care providers recommend starting at age 45. Family history of colon cancer, or a history of inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, among other issues, may increase your risk, so talk with your health care provider about when to start screening.

Screening is an important tool to stay ahead of potentially dangerous diseases. These diseases may be cured if caught early enough. There is no bad time to talk with your doctor about what screening might look like for you. Most insurance, including Medicare, will cover the cost of screening, and the value of knowing key information about your health is priceless.

Reach Dr. Rachel C. Wood, health officer for Thurston and Lewis counties, at 360-867-2501,, or @ThurstonHealth on Twitter.