Colorectal cancer screening, is it for you?

A group of physicians from the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) published an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), recommending that a national colorectal cancer screening program be implemented,

Did you know that there are no screening programs for colorectal cancer in Quebec or in Canada? Yet, colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in Canada, behind lung cancer. Yet, this cancer is deemed highly curable when it is diagnosed early. Yet, a simple and non-invasive screening test is easily accessible… After considering these and other reasons, a group of physicians from the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) published an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), recommending that a national colorectal cancer screening program be implemented.

According to the CMA physicians, screening for colorectal cancer is shamefully weak in Canada. After having analysed statistical data from four provinces, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador, they determined the rate for up-to-date screening was only 17.6%. This rate is clearly inferior to that of the United States, at 63%, and the United Kingdom, at 60%. According to the CMA physicians, a national colorectal screening program would help reduce by half the number of deaths attributed to this cancer.

However, other experts ascertain that implementing such a program would be futile. They state that a provincial or national screening program would only create an additional burden for our encumbered health care system. Because there already is a shortage of staff, putting such a program in place would require hiring of laboratory technicians, nurses and physicians. What would be the point in detecting colorectal cancer early if the current lengthy waiting period for treatment means it could only be treated months after it is discovered? Hence, these experts maintain that a large-scale screening program would result in treatment delays, in addition to causing great anxiety and stress to patients who were diagnosed and are awaiting treatment.

A colorectal cancer screening program would specifically target adults over the age of 50 who are considered to be at average risk for the disease. That is to say: adults who do not have a family history of colon cancer; and are not suffering from chronic inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. A number of tests are currently used to detect colorectal cancer. To date, the fecal occult blood test (FOBT) is the easiest, simplest and least invasive test available. It consists in having a stool sample analysed to detect microscopic evidence of blood. Minute traces of blood may indicate that a cancer could be growing in the bowel, and prompt a physician to further investigate. When the results of the FOBT are positive, the patient will likely be asked to undergo a colonoscopy. A colonoscopy is an invasive test conducted by a specialist. It consists in inserting a long tube with a camera into the rectum, to examine the bowel. Although this test is neither comfortable nor pleasant, it is the very best way for physicians to determine if cancer is present, or rule it out.

Are you over the age of 50? If so, you should not wait until the regulatory bodies make up their minds on colorectal cancer screening. Take charge of your health today: ask your family physician to be screened for colorectal cancer. After all, you are the best person to make decisions when it comes to your health!

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