Get FIT: Nova Scotian urges colorectal cancer screening

The province is mailing out home screening tests again, months after pausing the program

Anne Perry lost her husband one year ago this month and now more than ever she’s raising awareness about the dangers of colorectal cancer during the pandemic. She doesn’t want others to go through the same loss she did.

Perry lost her husband, Toby, when he was 51 in November 2019. He was diagnosed with colorectal cancer at age 49, just a year before he would have received a colorectal cancer pre-screening test kit test from the Colon Cancer Prevention Program of Nova Scotia.

This program, which sends out pre-screening tests called fecal immunochemical test (FIT), tests for blood in the stool. These tests are mailed out every two years, around your 50th birthday. The test itself is just a pre-screen for colorectal cancer, it can’t actually tell you if you have cancer. But a positive test could point you towards getting a colonoscopy, which can lead to a diagnosis.

The Shelburne County woman is one of many people across the province who haven’t received their colorectal cancer pre-screening testing kit yet due to the pandemic. The program was paused in March. But Perry said she doesn’t want people to wait if they’re experiencing symptoms.

“If we just took notice of the changes in our body and took note of the things that are happening to us and went to the doctor right away … we wouldn’t be in the position I was in,” Perry said in an interview.

Pausing the FIT test mail-outs could mean the difference between catching cancers early, or not catching them at all.

“We just thought it didn’t make sense to continue sending out tests,” said Dr. Donald MacIntosh, a gastroenterologist and director of the Nova Scotia Colon Cancer Prevention Program.

“People are getting a positive test, there’s no way we’re going to be able to do the colonoscopy that they need. So, all that we’d be doing is increasing the wait times.”

These wait times are a result of doctors who perform the tests also having patient care on top of scheduling colonoscopies and polyp removals. This is something that MacIntosh said was addressed during the pandemic by changing FIT positive people from non-urgent to semi-urgent status.

Previously, if someone needed to be tested for colorectal cancer, they could be wait listed until the next available gastrointestinal doctor could see them. This could mean weeks or days depending on the doctor’s patient and teaching schedule.

But because of COVID-19 cancellations, they were able to get people who tested positive on FIT tests through to the next available doctor. This allowed them to get through all the wait listed people who had received their tests before the shutdown and had positive results.

MacIntosh also said of the 175,000 tests mailed out to Nova Scotians each year, only 34 per cent of them (around 59,500) are returned to the lab.

Testing early is critical and could make all the difference.

Nova Scotia Health said on its website that, as of Oct. 14, the mail-out of FIT tests has once again resumed. But because of COVID-19, many people including Perry won’t get them like they were supposed to.

Anne Perry and her late husband, Toby, who died from colorectal cancer in November 2019.   Courtesy of Anne Perry

When her husband was first diagnosed in 2018, Perry researched ways to fundraise and learn more about colorectal cancer. In her search, she found the Push For Your Tush race events organized by the not-for-profit organization, Colorectal Cancer Canada (CCC).

Inspired, she planned to have her own run on her late husband’s birthday, Sept. 27. The name TestForToby was chosen by Perry and her family to encourage people to talk to their doctor.

“Some people have no symptoms, some people have these symptoms. It’s so random and different for every person,” Perry said. “I just want people to be OK to talk about it.”

On Jan. 2 of this year, she started an Instagram account of the same name dedicated to increasing awareness around colorectal cancer.

“I just wanted to be able to bring awareness to this issue,” Perry said. “So, I started the Instagram because it’s an easy way to get out there.”

The run Perry planned was cancelled earlier this year because of COVID-19 and limits on public gatherings.

Perry remains in second place on the top fundraiser list on the CCC website. Her total is $4,490. She hopes to reschedule her run.

“I hope to do it next year, I really do, to help keep this going.”

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