Kentucky's work to prevent cancer deaths, particularly from the when disease strikes the colon, has improved dramatically over the last couple of decades.

A program to offer free screenings to Caldwell County residents is aimed at pushing that initiative even further.

"Screening saves lives, that's the line," said Joan Lang, a cancer control specialist with the Kentucky Cancer Program for the five Pennyrile District Health Department counties that includes Caldwell County. "An awful lot of deaths could have been prevented through screenings."

In 2002, Kentucky ranked 49th in the United States in colon cancer screening rates.

Since that time, efforts to raise awareness have achieved increased the number of people receiving recommended colon cancer screening each year.

Now ranked 17th, Kentucky has achieved a 50% increase in screening rates -- more than any other state.

"Kentucky has made a reputation for itself in a positive way," Lang added.

Through the Kentucky Colon Cancer Screening Program, residents of Caldwell County age 45-75 can now receive free screenings in Princeton if they meet certain eligibility requirements.

The statewide program is aimed at knocking down the financial barrier that prevents many people from undergoing screenings.

"And, yes, I mean free colonoscopies," Lang emphasizes.

Individuals who may be deemed at high-risk for the cancer -- those with a family or personal history of polyps or diagnosed colon cancer -- may be eligible at an earlier age.

"The age that people are developing colon cancer is dropping," Lang said.

Nationwide, according to ACS, 147,950 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2020 and another 53,200 will die.

The cancer affects both men and women almost equally, but as with any cancer, the survival rate increases drastically with early detection.

Colon cancer screening tests work by finding cancer early when it is easiest to treat and by removing polyps before they become cancerous. Due to improvements in screening rates, 350 fewer Kentuckians develop colon cancer each year.

And that trend translates to Caldwell County.

In 2002, the age-adjusted rate of invasive colorectal cancer incidence in the county was 55.1 cases per 100,000 people, reports the Kentucky Cancer Registry. In 2015-16, the most recent period for which those statistics are available, the rate was cut in half to 42.7, just slightly higher than the overall U.S. rate reported by the American Cancer Society.

Yet despite this marked improvement in screening rates, colon cancer is still the second leading cause of cancer death in Kentucky.

According to the Kentucky Cancer Registry, about 2,400 cases of colon cancer are diagnosed in Kentucky each year. Working with Kentucky Cancer Program and multiple state and regional stakeholders, Kentucky Colon Cancer Screening Program (KCCSP) is reaching across the state to educate Kentuckians about high risk factors for colon cancer and what they can do to prevent colon cancer.

Finding and screening those most at risk for developing colon cancer is the primary objective of KCCSP.

Regional health care providers from areas across the state are collaborating with KCCSP to provide life-saving colon cancer screening.

Lang said most people who develop colon cancer have no signs of a problem until the disease has progressed to an aggressive stage.

Livingston Hospital and Healthcare Services in Salem is the local provider for this program serving Lyon, Crittenden and Livingston counties.

Because state funding is guaranteed through only the end of the current fiscal year, June 30, Lang urges people in the target age range to schedule their free colonoscopy as quickly as possible.

To find out if you are eligible, please call 270-388-0620.

In addition, you may contact Kentucky CancerLink, at 877-597-4655, a non-profit service that can help guide eligible participants to screening.

Kentucky Colon Cancer Screening Program eligibility at Livingston Hospital and Healthcare Services in Salem.

- Age: 45-75, with exceptions granted to people under 45 with qualifying conditions such as a recent positive test in need of follow-up; previous diagnosis of colon or rectal cancer; previous removal of pre-cancerous polyps; diagnosis of ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease; a family history of colon cancer or removal of polyps; or family history of familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or Lynch syndrome (HNPCC).

- Income at or below 300% percent of the federal poverty level, or $37,470 annually.

- A legal resident of Kentucky.

- Uninsured with no private or public health insurance.

- Underinsured with income at or below 300% of the federal poverty level and insurance has an out-of-pocket expense amounting to 5% or more of annual household income.

To find out if you are eligible, call 270-365-0227. In addition, you may contact Kentucky CancerLink at 877-597-4655.