Get a test to save your life

There are more options than ever before for colorectal cancer screening. If you have a family history of colon cancer, take the initiative. Go for a test.

When my family doctor recommended that I start colorectal cancer screening, I worried that the tests might be embarrassing, some even painful. I had my first screening test when I was 45, a little earlier than average, because both my parents had polyps – growths on the lining of the colon. Although theirs were benign, some polyps can eventually become cancerous if not removed. Three years ago, at 51, a specialist found and removed a noncancerous polyp during my fifth screening. I had had no symptoms.

Since I started screening nine years ago, I’ve had three types of colorectal cancer tests, and none was as bad as I anticipated.

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in Canada and the third most common cancer in women (after breast and lung) and men (after prostate and lung). According to the Canadian Cancer Society, about 20,800 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer this year; about 8,700 will die from it.

More than 90 per cent of colorectal cancers occur in people over the age of 50. Screening tests can help prevent or detect it early at a time when it is highly curable. But most 50-plus Canadians have never gone for any colorectal cancer screening.

“Screening is extremely important in preventing the disease by finding and removing polyps and treating it at the earliest stage possible,” says Barry Stein, president of the Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada and a colorectal cancer survivor. “If we can catch it through screening, even through the fecal occult blood test, which checks for microscopic blood in the stool, we can reduce mortality between 15 and 33 per cent.”

Almost all colorectal cancers start as polyps, although it can take years for a polyp to turn cancerous. Symptoms may include blood in the stool, rectal bleeding, a change in bowel habits, abdominal discomfort, nausea, fatigue or weight loss. But often there are no symptoms during the early stages, when there is a 90 per cent chance of curing the disease versus 10 per cent at the advanced stage.

An Ontario study found that only 20 per cent of Canadians over 50 have been screened; other research indicates the rate may be even lower. Now, some provincial health ministries are starting screening programs, hoping to encourage people to get tested, increase prevention and early detection, and reduce deaths. Last January, Ontario announced plans for a screening program, followed by Manitoba and Alberta. British Columbia and Nova Scotia are considering developing programs. Quebec is waiting for a report from the public health agency.

Whether or not you live in a province with a program, take action by talking to your doctor about colorectal cancer screening. Ask about your risk for the disease, screening choices, what testing may be suitable for you and how often you should go.