Half of colorectal cancers diagnosed too late for effective treatment: study

According to a new report, nearly half of all colorectal cancers in Canada are diagnosed after they have spread to other parts of the body, despite the fact that most provinces and territories offer screening programs that can detect the disease in its earliest stages.

— which was released Wednesday by the Canadian Cancer Society in partnership with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Statistics Canada — showed that a staggering 49 per cent of colorectal cancers are diagnosed in Stage 3 or Stage 4 when they are mostly untreatable.

"The fact that we’re still seeing almost 50 per cent of colorectal cancers being diagnosed at these late stages shows us that screening isn’t yet meeting its full potential here in Canada," Canadian Cancer Society researcher Leah Smith told CTV News. "A lot of Canadians don’t realize just how easy it is to get screened for colorectal cancer and what impact it can have."

In Canada, colorectal cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed form of cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death. In 2017 alone, an estimated 26,800 Canadians were diagnosed with colorectal cancer while 9,400 Canadians lost their lives to it. That equals an average of 73 diagnoses and 26 deaths per day.

When diagnosed at Stage 1, the five-year survival rate for colorectal cancer is close to 90 per cent. When diagnosed at Stage 4, that rate drops to below an abysmal 15 per cent. Although colorectal cancer rates are decreasing in Canada, one in 13 men and one in 16 women are still expected to be diagnosed with it in their lifetimes.

The high percentage of late-stage colorectal cancer diagnoses, researchers say, may indicate that many Canadians are failing to participate in colorectal cancer screening programs, which are available in Yukon and every province except Quebec. Nearly one third of Canadians are eligible to participate in such screening programs, though data suggests that less than 60 per cent of eligible Canadians do so.

"These screening programs can help reduce the number of Canadians diagnosed with colorectal cancer and the number of Canadians who are dying of colorectal cancer," Smith said. "We really need to increase the participation rates."

 

If you are aged 50 to 74, and not at high risk for colorectal cancer, the Canadian Cancer Society recommends getting screened every two years. Such tests, which check your stool for trace amounts of blood, can easily be done at home. While a positive result does not necessarily mean that you have colorectal cancer, it will spark follow-up tests to determine the reason for the bleeding, which is often not visible to the naked eye.

"It can help detect cancer early, so at Stages 1 or 2, when it can be treated more effectively and the outcomes are better," Smith said of the screening tests. "It can also help detect precancerous changes that can be treated to stop the cancer from ever happening in the first place."

Such a test likely saved Jeff Orson’s life.

The Canadian singer-songwriter told CTV News that he knew something was wrong with his health when he began losing sleep and feeling lethargic.

Orson’s doctor recommended that he do a stool test. When it tested positive for blood, he soon underwent a colonoscopy. He was 51 at the time.

"The doctor said, ‘You have a cancerous tumour,’" Orson recalled. "I felt pretty horrified in the fact that I know how some of these things can turn out."

Orson, who was diagnosed with Stage 2 colon cancer, eventually had 18 centimetres of his colon surgically removed. But because the cancer was caught before it had spread elsewhere, he did not need to undergo brutal treatments like chemotherapy or radiation.

"If I hadn‘t done that, well, I don‘t know how it would have turned out — but probably, much nastier than it did," he said of the screening test.

He has now been cancer-free for four years.

"Take the test," Orson urged Canadians. "It can save your life."

With a report from CTV News medical affairs specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip