Wider use of home screening tests for colorectal cancer could prevent unnecessary deaths, the Canadian Cancer Society says.

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in Canada, with 8,900 Canadians expected to die from the disease this year, according to the group's annual cancer statistics, released on Wednesday.

The society estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 deaths could be prevented over the next decade if 80 per cent of Canadians aged 50 and older were screened as recommended.

The society recommends that these Canadians get screened every two years with a simple stool test known as fecal occult blood test (FOBT) and the fecal immunochemical test (FIT). The tests detect trace amounts of blood in the stool, which can be a sign of colorectal cancer.

"People don't understand that screening is something that you do when you are feeling well," said Gillian Bromfield, senior manager of Cancer Control Policy for the Canadian Cancer Society.

 

si-colorectal-homekit-220-c

Canadians aged 50 and older should get screened every two years with a simple stool test. (CBC)

"I think it is human nature to be a bit uncomfortable with talking about stool and perhaps using these tests. But we know that this test is effective in saving lives."

"It will save your life, it did mine," agreed Ed Branton, 64, of Martin's River in Lunenberg, N.S.

"It's simple, you just put a little dab on the swab and away it goes."

Canadians who have discussed colorectal cancer screening with their doctors are more than twice as likely to get screened regularly, Bromfield added.

The group recommends:

  • Maximizing regular participation and retention in screening programs and enhancing their quality.
  • Improving Canadians' awareness about screening and the fact that screening is for people with no symptoms.
  • More research into the risk factors for colorectal cancer and effective prevention and treatment.

In a sense, colorectal cancer is preventable since polyps are a kind of pre-cancerous growth in the colon that can be caught early and removed to prevent them from progressing into cancer, said Dr. Prithwish De, an epidemiologist at the Canadian Cancer Society in Toronto.

That's another reason why the society recommends colorectal cancer screening among Canadians at average risk, that is people who don't have a family history of the disease or other risk factors. 

Branton's swab was positive. After he had a polyp removed, the doctor told him if had waited about another four months then he "would not be very good shape." 

Compared with other cancers, colorectal cancer has a moderate prognosis with a five-year relative survival rate of 63 per cent at diagnosis, up from 56 per cent in 1992-1994, the society said. 

Derek Miller of Vancouver died of stage 4 metastatic colorectal cancer two weeks ago. Miller openly blogged about his cancer and end-of-life experience, including chemotherapy, physical setbacks, and the support he gained from family and friends.

SPECIAL REPORT: A good death

Risk factors for colorectal cancer include a diet high in red or processed meat, being overweight or obese, physical inactivity, smoking and a family history of the disease. 

The report also includes survival rates for other cancers, including melanoma, lung cancer, and liver cancer.

The statistics are released in collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Statistics Canada.

With files from CBC's Kelly Crowe and Lyle Hart