Nova Scotia

Home screening kits for colon cancer and when they could be in mail again

Colonoscopies have resumed, but the health authority has to work through a backlog of 700 procedures first before it starts mailing out new kits.

Possible second wave of COVID-19 complicates plan for resumption of at-home screening kit mailings

Dr. Drew Bethune is the senior medical director of Nova Scotia's cancer care program. (Robert Short/CBC)

Some Nova Scotians between the ages of 50 to 74 who are used to receiving a colon cancer home screening kit every two years are wondering what has happened to the mail-outs. 

Nova Scotia Health says the kits will eventually start to be mailed out again, but a possible second wave of COVID-19 makes it difficult to say when. 

Progressive Conservative MLA Karla MacFarlane received word from one of her constituents last week that an expected mail-out had not arrived. She put out a press release on the topic and instantly got a response from others who were concerned. 

"Once I put my press release out, I had over 100 and some people from across the province that have contacted me with regards to this," she said. 

Colon cancer is the third most common cause of cancer deaths and early detection at home can almost entirely prevent it. 

Back in March, colonoscopies were one of many procedures that got put on hold due to COVID. The health authority stopped mailing out the home test kits, because even if people used the kit and qualified to have their colon examined, they couldn't get that procedure done. 

Karla MacFarlane is the Progressive Conservative MLA for Pictou West. (CBC)

In late May colonoscopies resumed, but the health authority has to work through the backlog of procedures first before it starts mailing out new kits. Endoscopy services are only operating at between 50 and 60 per cent capacity due to COVID protocols such as increased cleaning and spacing out of patients in waiting rooms. 

In late May the backlog was 1,600 people, and currently the waitlist sits at about 700. 

Dr. Drew Bethune, the senior medical director of the cancer care program, said Nova Scotia Health is increasing its capacity because it has hired two new gastroenterologists in Halifax and is opening another colonoscopy operating room in Dartmouth. Some doctors have also done after-hours colonoscopies to catch up. 

Bethune said he hopes the mail-out will resume in the fall, but it is not solid yet. 

"The only, of course, fly in the ointment is, what's going to happen if we do have a second surge and how is that going to affect things," he said. 

"I believe we've learned something from the first surge and I think that we will have different ways of approaching it that may not disrupt our regular medical care as much. Not sure about that, we have to learn as we go along."  

Tests will still be processed

The home screening program began in 2009 and went province-wide in 2011. Bethune said since its inception the program has helped catch and remove 8,000 polyps that would have turned to cancer, and 1,000 cases of cancer that were caught at early stages. 

"For me, it's a very, very important part of our cancer care program," Bethune said, adding people who received a test kit before mid-March can still send it to the lab. 
Anyone who received a colon cancer home screening kit from Nova Scotia Health that is still valid can still send it in for processing. (Nova Scotia Health)

"If you have a test at home, do it. The laboratory is doing those results, examining the results, doing the test," he said. 

One of the program's biggest challenges is approximately 66 per cent of people do not return their kits. 

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Shaina Luck

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Shaina Luck covers everything from court to city council. Her favourite stories are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Email: shaina.luck@cbc.ca

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