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They say it all begins with a conversation, but it's a conversation I didn't want to have, so when I received a home screening kit in the mail through Cancer Care Nova Scotia's Colon Cancer Prevention Program, I stuck it at the back of a drawer, and left it there for six months.

According to Dr. Bernard Badley, medical director of the Colon Cancer Prevention Program in Halifax, I'm not alone in my reluctance to follow through on a minor inconvenience that could possibly save my life. Despite the fact that colon cancer (also called colorectal or bowel cancer) is the second leading cause of cancer death in Nova Scotia, and that home screening is the easiest, most convenient -a nd most cost-effective - way to find it early enough to have a high chance of a cure, only 33 per cent of Nova Scotians who receive the home screening kit (see "How to Get Your Kit," below) actually complete it.

"Many people mistakenly believe that you should only do a screening test if you have symptoms," explains Erika Nicholson, director of Prevention and Early Detection at Cancer Care Nova Scotia. "This is not the case. Screening is about looking for cancer before you have any warning signs." Nicholson advises those receiving the kit to take a few minutes in the comfort and privacy of their homes to complete the test (see "Taking the Test," below), adding that those few minutes have already saved the lives of many Nova Scotians.

About four per cent of those who do the home screening will be recommended to have a colonoscopy, a procedure in which a long, flexible scope is guided via the rectum through the colon. Just over half of these colonoscopies will result in the discovery of either malignant or pre-malignant polyps (growths on the colon or rectum), about 90 per cent of which can be removed during the procedure. Finding these growths early is critical, because the symptoms of colon cancer - which can include rectal bleeding, prolonged diarrhea or constipation, narrowing of stools, unexplained weight loss and exhaustion - are often not detected until the disease is well established.

"We have been blown away by the early test results," says Dr. Donald MacIntosh, a gastroenterology professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax and medical director of the endoscopy program for the Capital District Health Authority. "Not only are we detecting early bowel cancer when it is still curable, but we are also finding many polyps and removing them to prevent colon cancer from even developing. This, to me, is the main attraction of bowel cancer screening."

Screening is especially vital in Atlantic Canada, where we have the highest incidence of colon cancer in all of Canada. It's also especially important for men, who have a 40 per cent higher incidence of colon cancer than women, yet are far less likely to do the home test. "Screenings have been part of women's health care for the past 20 years," says Dr. Badley. "Men, on the other hand, aren't used to them; they don't go to the doctor as often as women do and they usually believe that bad things won't happen to them."

In some ways, that described Ed Branton, a healthy 65-year-old with no history of major illness and no family history of colon cancer. After a few days of procrastination, the Martin's River man completed the test and mailed in his samples. Three weeks later, he received word that he would require a colonoscopy. Initially apprehensive, he felt more comfortable after he met with a nurse from the screening program who explained what to expect. "There was nothing to it," he says, "and it wasn't embarrassing - just a bit of discomfort at the beginning, but no pain."

Medication made the first part of Branton's 90-minute procedure seem almost like taking a nap. More fully awake near the end of the colonoscopy, he saw images of the inside of his colon on a video monitor and watched as the doctor removed three polyps-one, a very aggressive form of cancer. "They caught it just in time," he says. "My doctor said that it's likely that I wouldn't have made it to the next Christmas."

Since then, Branton has rallied his six siblings to take the test, knowing that there's a slightly higher risk in people who have a first degree relative (father, mother, brother or sister) who have had colon cancer or a precancerous polyp. He has also encouraged his friends and been featured in a national news story about the need for screening.

"I don't have the words to explain how important this home screening is," says Branton. "If I can convince even one person to take the test, I'll have done something good."

To learn more about the Colon Cancer Prevention Program, call 1-866-599-2267.

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