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City Happy to Be Cancer-free

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MONTE SERENO, Calif. - The college community of Davis declares itself a nuclear-free zone.'' Many cities havedrug-free'' zones. And now, in a public health twist on the idea, the small, wealthy city of Monte Sereno has adopted its own zone - this one to fight colon cancer.

Civic leaders have declared the city of 3,500 the country's only known ``colon-cancer-free zone.'' In a community known more for hefty real estate prices than political progressiveness, the move might seem an unlikely one. But such efforts have worked in other communities organized to combat breast or lung cancer, and backers say it is a good way to raise public awareness of a deadly disease that is highly preventable.

At first glance, it just sounds like a crazy, wacky idea,'' conceded Dr. Richard Adrouny, a Los Gatos oncologist who came up with the notion.But I think in years to come, it will actually be a very forward-thinking idea.''

If not an arduous one.

Colorectal cancer claims the lives of 56,000 Americans a year, making it one of the leading causes of cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society.

It is largely preventable, with doctors estimating that 90 percent of cases could be avoided if older Americans were more willing to undergo regular screening exams. But in a culture where the term ``colorectal'' is hardly ever muttered, and those over age 50 shy away from having their nether regions probed, colon cancer awareness campaigns have mighty odds against them.

It sounded a little impossible, but Monte Sereno stepped up to the plate and said `I think we can do this,''' said Angie Carrillo, a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society. And so now, she said,We're off.''

Program leaders are gearing up to distribute educational information on preventing the disease to every single one of the community's 1,200 households. They envision not only a mass-mailing campaign but also door-to-door efforts and outreach through neighborhood associations and newspaper ads, probably sometime early next year.

The city's two closest medical centers, Community Hospital of Los Gatos and Good Samaritan Hospital, have offered incentives to their own employees to be screened for colon cancer. Residents will be surveyed about whether they've undergone screenings before. And a colon-cancer mascot known lovingly by the cancer society as ``Polyp Man'' will probably be waving to revelers at the Los Gatos Holiday Parade Dec. 6.

Sure, the efforts might sound a bit unsophisticated, said Adrouny, author of Understanding Colon Cancer.'' But, he said:it's not always about using drugs or surgery to fight a disease. A lot of it is being aware of it and taking preventive action.''

Indeed, colon cancer is somewhat unusual in that while scientists do not know what causes the cancer, they do understand how to largely prevent it through regular medical screenings in people over age 50. The screenings are used to detect precancerous growths in the colon and rectum. Removing the growths, known as polyps, can greatly reduce a person's cancer risk.

Yet, despite their potentially life-saving benefits, colon-cancer screenings have been highly underused. Little more than 35 percent of adults over age 50 in California have had one, American Cancer Society statistics show.

Health officials hope that number will quickly rise in Monte Sereno, where the city council voted to become a colon-cancer-free zone.

The median age of our citizens is around 46 or 47. That means half of our residents are in the age at risk,'' City Councilman David Baxter said. The council decided unanimously that the city would serve as the pilot for the program.There was never any thought toward not doing it.''

It is certainly not unheard-of for cities to declare themselves ``free'' of a vice or health problem. In recent years, towns across the country have pledged to become drug-free zones, or no-smoking zones. And the American Cancer Society has used similar methods to promote mammography for detecting breast cancer.

Adrouny admits he had the commitment of cities such as Berkeley to ban nukes and space-based weapons in mind when he came up with the anti-cancer initiative. The goal is for Monte Sereno to challenge other communities to follow its lead in the battle against colon cancer.

The grass-roots effort is being embraced by public health officials, who hope the notion will catch on in other cities - and for other diseases.

It's great to hear a campaign has taken place on this particular health risk. It promotes awareness,'' said Norma Arceo, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Health Services.Across the board, I think that is essential.''


(c) 2003, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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