New colon cancer screening test now available in Alberta

CALGARY- People over 50 with an average risk of developing colon cancer can now access a new screening test in Alberta.

The fecal immunochemical test has been available since November. Also known as FIT, the test requires a small stool sample that can be collected by patients in their own homes.

“The test uses antibodies that bind to human blood protein that may be found in the stool,” explains Dr. Steven Heitman, medical director of the Forzani & MacPhail Colon Cancer Screening Centre. “It is able to detect blood specific to bleeding in the colon which can indicate cancer or a [pre-cancerous] polyp.”

The FIT test is not intended to replace a colonoscopy, which remains the gold standard for colon cancer screening. Instead, FIT will be used to triage patients considered average risk.

“The test is really directed towards those that are 50 to 74 years of age who are asymptomatic and lack that family history or personal history of colon cancer.”

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Until now, those average risk patients were put to the back of the line for colonoscopy, waiting up to two years for their turn. Average risk patients who show no sign of cancer after their first colonoscopy often wait up to 10 years for a second screening.  New Alberta guidelines recommend patients are screened with the FIT test annually.

Sonja Chycoski fell into the average risk category when she began experiencing rectal bleeding in 2011.

“I went to the doctor and because I had had a colonoscopy five or six years before, they said’ it’s got to be hemorrhoids,’” she recalls.

Chycoski waited over a year for another colonoscopy. She was eventually diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Since then, she’s had surgery twice and is currently undergoing her fourteenth round of chemotherapy.

“Had it been diagnosed earlier, would it have been one simple surgery and follow up testing? I don’t know.”

Adults experiencing symptoms like rectal bleeding or have had a persistent change to their normal bowel habits or who have a family history of colon cancer should still be screened with a colonoscopy.

Colon cancer is the fourth most commonly diagnosed form of cancer in Canada and the second leading cause of cancer death.

A study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine found the FIT test detected a similar number of colorectal cancers when compared to a baseline group screened by colonoscopy.   The study also found people were more likely to participate in screening when the FIT test was available.

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To assess your colon cancer risk, you can take this test online. To access the FIT test, talk to your doctor.

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