Canadian Cancer Society wants more people to screen for colon cancer

In this Aug. 4, 2015 file photo, a nurse places a patient's chemotherapy medication on an intravenous stand at a hospital in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke / THE CANADIAN PRESS / AP)

In the absence of a systematic screening program for colon cancer, the Canadian Cancer Society is encouraging Quebecers aged 50 to 74 to take the steps themselves to find out about this often silent killer.

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March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and the disease is second deadliest form of cancer in Quebec (after lung cancer).

The Canadian Cancer Society is reminding citizens that a test that can be done in the comfort of your own bathroom is easily available with a doctor's prescription.

The RSOSi test consists of taking a stool sample that can be analyzed in the laboratory to detect the slightest presence of blood. These traces of blood, sometimes invisible to the naked eye, can be a sign of cancer even before symptoms appear.

If the test result is positive, a colonoscopy is then needed to make a diagnosis. Colonoscopies can also remove possible polyps, these small masses of flesh on the walls of the large intestine that can turn into cancer.

Out of 1,000 people who perform the test, 36 will find the presence of blood, according to figures from the government of Quebec. Of these, only four people will actually have colorectal cancer, while 17 others will have polyps needing removal. The remaining 15 people will not have polyps or cancer.

It's worth the effort, insists the Canadian Cancer Society.

"When you detect colorectal cancer at an early stage, the survival (after five years) is 90 per cent, whereas if you detect it at a much more advanced stage where there are metastases, we speak of roughly 15 per cent," said spokesperson André Beaulieu.

Also, the removal of polyps can outright prevent the development of cancer.

Across Canada, it is estimated that one in two cases is diagnosed once the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

In Quebec, where colorectal cancer kills more than breast and prostate cancer combined, only four out of 10 people in the target age group take the trouble to do the screening test.

"It is largely insufficient if we want to see an impact in terms of public health," lamented Beaulieu.

The Canadian Cancer Society has been calling for several years for the establishment of a Quebec program by which a letter serving as a prescription would be sent every two years, as is already the case for mammograms in Quebec women aged 50 at 69 years old.

"Quebec is the only province that does not have an official organized program in the country," said Beaulieu.

In the meantime, citizens must assume this responsibility and discuss the subject with a doctor.

INVISIBLE SYMPTOMS

Dr. Claude Rivard, a general practitioner who himself survived colon cancer, joined the campaign from the Canadian Cancer Society.

Three-and-a-half years ago, the results of his RSOSi test turned out to be abnormal. A colonoscopy confirmed that he was indeed suffering from cancer. Then, a month later, he found himself on the operating table.

"I had absolutely no symptoms," he said. "I even went to donate blood or platelets every three weeks to a Héma-Québec collection centre. I never had anemia, I never had pain, I never saw blood in the stool and it was this test that found my cancer."

In a telephone interview, he recalled the ripple effect around him.

"I told my brothers and my sister about it. They had tests and they found polyps in some family members, which could have turned into cancer in two, three, four or five years," he said. "The impact of the test is wider than we think."

Each year in Quebec, approximately 6,800 people are diagnosed with colon cancer and 2,550 die from the disease.

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— Colorectal Cancer Alliance (@CCAlliance) March 7, 2020

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Mar. 7, 2020.