Four years ago, Jeff Orson was having trouble sleeping. After it went on for weeks, he finally decided to see his doctor about it.
His doctor ordered blood and stool tests, and when the stool test came back positive, he was eventually diagnosed with colon cancer.
“I think it’s got to be one of the most frightening things that I’ve ever heard. There’s this hopeless feeling, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m going to die,’” said the 56-year-old Oakville, Ont., resident.
Fortunately for Orson, it worked out well. His cancer was caught early, at Stage 2, and he underwent treatment that included surgically removing 18 inches of his colon. He’s now cancer-free.
For about half of colorectal cancer patients in Canada, it’s not so simple.
According to a new report by the Canadian Cancer Society, nearly half of colorectal cancer cases aren’t detected until they have spread to other organs. “The reason this is important is the stage at which cancer is diagnosed has a big impact on the outcomes of the disease,” said Dr. Leah Smith, lead author of the report and senior manager of surveillance at the Canadian Cancer Society.
Colorectal cancer is the second most-diagnosed cancer in Canada and the second-leading cause of cancer death, accounting for an estimated 9,400 deaths in 2017. If it’s caught at Stage 1, it has a 90 per cent survival rate. If it’s caught at Stage 4, the survival rate is less than 15 per cent.
Lung cancer — which is the most commonly-diagnosed and most deadly cancer in Canada — also goes undetected at first, according to the report. About 70 per cent of lung cancers are detected after they have spread.
“In a sense, this isn’t surprising. Survival rates for lung cancer are very low, about 17 per cent overall,” said Smith. Survival rates are still higher when it’s detected early, but spotting the problem is difficult.
“The lung is an organ that’s deep in the body, and in general, organs that are found deep in the body can be harder to diagnose early. Lung cancer also at early stages doesn’t have a lot of signs or symptoms.”
There isn’t a broad screening program for lung cancer at the moment, but there is one for colorectal cancer, and it’s easy. A stool test, which can be done at home, is the first step. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends that all adults between the ages of 50-74 take this test every two years — more often if they have a family history of colorectal cancer or other risk factors.
Screening programs exist in every province except Quebec, and one is being developed there.
Orson isn’t sure why people aren’t getting tested, other than general negative feelings about that part of the anatomy. “Who wants to talk about that? Who wants to have colonoscopies and do stool tests?” he said.
But, “Having cancer is a lot worse than taking the test.”
He isn’t sure he would have gotten tested himself if he hadn’t developed symptoms first, but he urges people to listen to their doctors, as they suggest things for a reason.
“This probably could have gone very bad. Maybe I wouldn’t be speaking with you right now, which would be sad. Maybe not for you, but very sad for me.”
Early detection is key, said Smith, as one in two Canadians can expect to be diagnosed with some form of cancer in their lifetime. “We know the earlier that we can detect these cancers, the more we can improve the outcomes.”
“We’d encourage all Canadians to talk with their health-care providers about cancer screening so they can become aware of when they should be screened for certain cancers.”