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Lack of screening program 'very short-sighted'

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Mr. St. Coeur also has cancer in the family: His brother died of colorectal cancer five years ago, and another brother was diagnosed with the disease in 2003, two years before Mr. St. Coeur showed up in a hospital emergency with a case of it himself. Two older brothers do not have the disease. Had Mr. St. Coeur been able to find a family doctor, the physician would likely have recommended a colonoscopy when he experienced symptoms or even before then. Instead, his cancer was caught so late that the tumour had invaded his bladder.

"Once I went into hospital that was it, they had to do something right away or I probably would have died," Mr. St. Coeur said.

As for Ms. McAlpine, just being a woman meant she was more likely to present with a complicated, advanced case of colorectal cancer.

Dr. Rabeneck speculated that women may tend to be averse to colonoscopy out of a reluctance to undergo procedures performed by a male physician -- in short, they're embarrassed. But Ms. McAlpine said that wasn't the case.

"I ate all the right things, I exercised, I didn't smoke -- the whole bit," said Ms. McAlpine, who, until her diagnosis, was a psychologist who worked with visually impaired, blind and hearing impaired.

She first attributed her symptoms of bloating, diarrhea and vomiting to a bout of the flu. Other times, difficulty tolerating food was ascribed to menopause or indigestion.

"If there was a screening program, I would have done it," Ms. McAlpine said. "These symptoms are too easy to ignore."

Screening and symptoms of colon cancer

Colorectal cancer is a slow-growing, malignant tumour that develops on the bowel wall before invading it and moving on to other organs. Because it usually takes at least a decade to develop from polyps ( raised clumps of noncancerous cells) to a cancer, regular screening is vital to diagnosing the disease early, when it is more treatable.

Symptoms of colorectal cancer include fatigue and weakness, a change in bowel habits that alternates between constipation and increased stool frequency, stool streaked or mixed with blood, and discomfort or pain in the lower abdomen.

Colonoscopy of large intestine

Colonoscopies are used to visually examine the inside of the colon and rectum for any abnormalities. Before the hourlong procedure, patients are asked to limit solid food intake for a few days, and are often given laxatives to clear the colon of any blockages. The colonoscope is a long, flexible, tubular instrument about the thickness of an adult finger with a tiny video camera at its tip. It transmits an image of the lining of the colon onto a monitor for the doctor to examine.

Doctor's eye view

The scope is inserted through the rectum and blows air into the colon to expand it for a clearer view. Doctors are able to insert tiny instruments through the length of the scope to remove benign polyps, take tissue samples, inject solutions, and destroy tissues. Not all polyps become cancerous, but nearly all colon cancers start out as polyps. And polyps that are larger than the size of a pencil eraser have a small, but increasing chance of becoming cancerous. A biopsy of anything suspicious will tell the doctor if more serious surgery is required.

Series schedule

Monday Drugs and dollars:

The pressure of high costs on care

Tuesday So tired of waiting:

Treatment is still taking too long

Wednesday Canada's research chasm: A nation falls behind

Thursday PET scan scandal: High tech sits idle

Today Screen test: Beating the

colorectal killer

Tomorrow in Focus English lessons: The quest for a national strategy

Tomorrow in NewsThe science of stem cells: A new way of looking

at cancer

Tuesday, Nov. 28 The end of chemo: There must be a better way

Thursday, Nov. 30 Can a shot of the flu cure cancer?

Saturday, Dec. 2 In his shoes:

Eight-year-old Spencer fights to live

Wednesday, Dec. 6 It's everywhere: Is the environment killing people?

Saturday, Dec. 9 "C-type" mentality:

The psychology of survival

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