Early Colorectal Cancer Screening Saves Lives

Nile Cruise Dancer (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Nile Cruise Dancer (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

Colorectal cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in Canada and the second leading cause of cancer death. First being lung cancer.

It is estimated about one in 13 men and one in 16 women will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer during their lifetime. Seventy per cent of cancers are in the colon and 30 per cent are in the rectum.

Over the years we have been diagnosing colorectal cancer at an earlier stage thanks to public awareness and the variety of screening tests available to the public. Cancer diagnosed early has about 90 per cent survival rate. Cancer diagnosed in advanced stage has about 10 per cent survival rate.

There are many ways to get the general public involved in the screening programs. The programs can be adjusted to an individual’s needs and fears. Screening tests are purely for people who have no bowel symptoms or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps. For them screening should begin at age 50 and we have a variety of tests to choose from.

Colonoscopy is the most accurate test for detecting colorectal cancer, proven to detect the disease early and save lives. But even a very good test can be done too often, according to experts at Choosing Wisely Canada (CWC). CWC is the national voice for reducing unnecessary tests and treatments in health care. Having a colonoscopy more than once every five or ten years usually isn’t necessary unless there are clear indications. Routine checks usually aren’t needed after age 75.

If a screening colonoscopy does not find adenomas (pre-malignant benign tumours) or cancer and you don’t have risk factors, the next test should be in ten years. If one or two small low-risk adenomas (polyps) are removed, the exam should be repeated in five to ten years.

Some individuals, who are at a low or average risk of colorectal cancer would prefer to go for an alternative test. For whatever reasons, some people do not like the idea of getting a screening colonoscopy. Here are some other choices, though not as good as colonoscopy.

Virtual colonoscopy (CT colonography): During a virtual colonoscopy, a CT scan produces cross-sectional images of the abdominal organs, allowing the doctor to detect changes or abnormalities in the colon and rectum. To help create clear images, a small tube (catheter) is placed inside your rectum to fill your colon with air or carbon dioxide. Virtual colonoscopy takes about 10 minutes and is generally repeated every five years.

Fecal occult blood test or fecal immunochemical test: These are lab tests used to check stool samples for hidden (occult) blood. The tests usually are repeated annually.

Flexible sigmoidoscopy: During flexible sigmoidoscopy, a thin, flexible tube is inserted into the rectum. A tiny video camera at the tip of the tube allows the doctor to view the inside of the rectum and most of the lower part of the colon (sigmoid colon). A flexible sigmoidoscopy test takes about 20 minutes and is generally repeated every 5 years.

Stool DNA test: The stool DNA test uses a sample of your stool to look for DNA changes in cells that might indicate the presence of colon cancer or precancerous conditions. The stool DNA test also looks for signs of blood in your stool.

If any of the above test is positive then you must have a colonoscopy to confirm the findings and manage the problem.

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Are we doing too many colonoscopies? The new guidelines are here.

Dr. Noorali Bharwani demonstrating flexible sigmoidoscopy.
Dr. Noorali Bharwani demonstrating flexible sigmoidoscopy.

First, let us face the facts. Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in Canada. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in men and the third in women. The lifetime probabilities of dying from colorectal cancer among men and women are three to four per cent.

What’s the best way to prevent colon and rectal cancer?

We have been doing colonoscopies just over 50 years. The technology is changing almost every year. The service is now available almost everywhere. There are more doctors doing colonoscopy. And people are getting the procedure done more often. The indications of doing the procedure are increasing everyday. The saying goes, “If you haven’t had a colonoscopy then you need one. If have had one then you need another one!” Is that the way to go?

Last time the guidelines for colonoscopy were updated was 2001. Now, in 2016, we have new guidelines from the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care. The new guidelines state there is not enough evidence to justify colonoscopies as routine screening for colorectal cancer. Instead, patients should undergo fecal occult blood testing every two years, or flexible sigmoidoscopy every 10 years. Flexible sigmoidoscopy is a procedure in which a scope is inserted in the lower portion of the colon and rectum rather than the entire tract. I used to provide that service in my office.

It is sad to note that currently no provincial screening program includes flexible sigmoidoscopy.

It is important to remember that the guidelines apply to adults aged 50 to 74, who are asymptomatic and at low risk for colorectal cancer, meaning they have no prior history of the disease, no family history, no symptoms such as blood in the stool, or genetic predisposition. If they have any of these risk factors then they need a colonoscopy – full examination of the colon and rectum.

The task force hopes that ultimately, most Canadians will likely be screened using fecal occult blood tests, which look for microscopic specks of blood in the stool that could be a sign of cancer. If that is positive then a colonoscopy is indicated. If a flexible sigmoidoscopy (a 60-cm scope which examines the rectum and left colon) is positive for any abnormal findings then the person needs a colonoscopy.

To spread this message, we have to educate the public about the risk of the disease and the safety and importance of screening. Adults 75 and over should not be ignored. If they are in good health then they should discuss with their doctor and get into the screening program.

Colonoscopy is a great test but because waiting lists are long and the potential for side effects such as bleeding or intestinal perforation are greater than they are for other tests, the guidelines recommend against using colonoscopies as a routine screening tool in asymptomatic low-risk adult.

The old guidelines (2001) recommended annual or biennial faecal occult blood test (FOBT) and flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years in asymptomatic people older than 50 years. The guideline did not recommend whether these screening modalities should be used alone or in combination or whether to include or exclude colonoscopy as an initial screening test for colorectal cancer. And provincial screening programs do not include flexible sigmoidoscopy as one of their screening options. This should change.

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Colonoscopy – A Dreaded Test Prevents Deaths

Colonoscopy cartoon. (Hemera)
Colonoscopy cartoon. (Hemera)

Dr. Bharwani demonstrating the use of flexible sigmoidoscope - checks left side of the colon for average risk patient.
Dr. Bharwani demonstrating the use of flexible sigmoidoscope – checks left side of the colon for average risk patient.

Rightly so, the media immediately picked up the conclusions of a recent study (Colonoscopic Polypectomy and Long-Term Prevention of Colorectal-Cancer Deaths) published in the New England Journal of Medicine (February 23, 2012).

Among 2602 patients who had adenomas (pre-malignant polyps) removed during participation in the study, after a median of 15.8 years, had 53 per cent reduction in death from colorectal cancer.

This indeed is an important conclusion. As New York Times (February 22/12) said, “Although many people have assumed that colonoscopy must save lives because it is so often recommended, strong evidence has been lacking until now.” This study has some limitations in that it was not a double blind or randomized trial.

The Times article also says, “The new study did not compare colonoscopy with other ways of screening for colorectal cancer and so does not fully resolve a longstanding medical debate about which method is best. Tests other than colonoscopy look for blood in the stool or use different techniques to examine the intestine. All the tests are unpleasant, and people are often reluctant to have them.”

In fact, a study from Spain found that when people were offered a stool test, only 34.2 per cent took it. The figure for colonoscopy was even worse: 24.6 per cent.

One thing most physicians agree is that it is important to get some type of screening test for colorectal cancer starting at age 50. Research indicates that not every polyp turns into cancer, but that nearly every colorectal tumor starts out as an adenomatous polyp. In the general population this type of polyp is found in about 15 per cent of women and 25 per cent of men.

So, not every 50 year old and older is at risk of having colorectal cancer. Some are at average risk, some are at moderate risk and some are at high risk. It all depends on your personal and family history.

Not all doctors who do colonoscopies are good at finding polyps. Studies have shown that polyps in the right side of the colon are more often missed than on the left side.

Good news is, colonoscopy does not have to be done every year. If there are no polyps, it is recommended just once every 10 years. People with polyps are usually told to have the test every three to five years depending on the size and kind of polyp.

Colonoscopy should be used judiciously. It is invasive and expensive. It carries small risks of bleeding or perforation of the intestine. It requires sedation, a day off work, and patients must take strong, foul-tasting laxatives to clean out the intestines.

Dr. Winawer, one of the authors of the new study is quoted in the Times article saying, “Any screening is better than none. The best test is the one that gets done, and that gets done well.”

So, what are you waiting for. Talk to your doctor about your risk (average, moderate, high), your options, the advantages and disadvantages of each test and go for it. It may save your life.

Honey, where is my bottle of laxative…I said laxative not a bottle of wine.

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Had Your Butt Checked Out Lately?

There are more jokes and humorous videos on the internet about colonoscopy than about mammography or cervical cancer screening. The reason is quite obvious. Most people do not like the idea of people inserting long tubes and cameras in the rear end of our anatomy. That is where the problem lies. Out of fear and embarrassment, we ignore that area and by the time we pick up cancer it is too late.

Alberta Cancer Board, Canadian Cancer Society and Alberta Health Services have been very aggressive in promoting the Alberta Colorectal Cancer Screening Program. You must have read about it in the newspapers, heard about it on the radio and seen the news on TV. The question is: what have you done about it? Are you ready for it?

The program aims to save lives by improving the prevention and early detection of colorectal cancer in Albertans between the ages of 50 and 74. The sad part is only 10 to 20 per cent of Canadians come forward to have some kind of screening test done for their colon. More women would go for mammography and cervical cancer screening than colorectal screening. And men are worse when it comes to screening for colorectal and prostate cancer.

Men and women are almost equally at risk of getting colorectal cancer. There is a less than three minutes video on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/realmenscreen) titled: “Had your butt checked out lately? – The Canadian Cancer Society asked men this question.” It is humorous and educational. Check it out!

Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer. The average lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is six per cent. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in Canada. It is expected that colorectal cancer screening will decrease both, incidence and mortality.

Most people are scared as soon as they hear the word colonoscopy. It is important to remember that colonoscopy is not the only test for screening although it is the best test and is considered as gold standard against which other screening tests are compared. In certain circumstances (high risk patients) you do not have a choice but go through a colonoscopy for diagnosis, prevention and treatment of certain conditions.

You are at a high risk of getting colorectal cancer if you have a family history of colorectal cancer or polyps, have a personal history of ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s colitis
and have had polyps or previous history of colorectal cancer.

If you have symptoms like rectal bleeding then you don’t have a choice – you need a test. Depending on your age, the test may be a flexible sigmoidoscopy in the office or colonoscopy at the hospital. For example, six per cent of the patients who say they are bleeding from hemorrhoids have colon or rectal cancer.

Every individual is at risk of developing colorectal cancer. If you have no symptoms, have no family history of colorectal cancer and you are 50 years or older then you do not have to go through colonoscopy. You have a choice of doing stool tests for occult blood yearly or bi-annually, flexible sigmoidoscopy in an office every five years or combine stool test and flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years.

Every test for screening has advantages and disadvantages. None of them are full proof. And they vary from very invasive (colonoscopy) to least invasive (stool test). If you fall into high risk category then colonoscopy is the way to go. If you are asymptomatic person with an average risk then you have a choice of tests mentioned earlier.

So don’t be scared, talk to your doctor and have your butt checked out!

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