Cancer Screening – Easy and Essential

by Gilda Spitz

“Cancer” is a scary word. When I was a child, my parents never said it out loud. They whispered it behind a hand, or said “the C-word”, as if this superstition would somehow protect us.

Superstition is understandable, but it doesn’t save lives. Cancer screening does.

The Ontario government offers an easy way to protect you, by providing screening programs for three types of cancer. The purpose of cancer screening is to detect early problems, when they are most treatable.

Screening is free in Ontario, as long as you are covered by OHIP.

Newcomers

Participation by newcomers in cancer screening programs has traditionally been lower than that of the general population.

The biggest factor, says Dr. Verna Mai, Director of Screening Programs at Cancer Care Ontario, is “making sure that people know that screening is needed.”

Often participation rates are low due to lack of familiarity, because screening may not exist in a newcomer’s home country. “Also, in some countries,” she says, “the focus of health care is when you’re sick. But here, the focus of our screening programs is when you’re well.”

How does it work?

For two of the programs (breast and colorectal), you don’t need to wait for a referral from a doctor. You can book your own appointment, even if you don’t have a family doctor.

Depending on the particular test, the screening can take place in a hospital or clinic. Cervical screening is usually done by Pap smear in a doctor’s office.

Once you are enrolled in a screening program, you will receive a reminder letter when it’s time for your next test.

You will be notified of the results.

If the test discovers something abnormal, it doesn’t mean that you have cancer. “It means that you have something that needs to be checked,” Dr. Mai says. Even after a follow-up test, many people receive confirmation that they do not have cancer, she adds.

However, if the follow-up test indicates that you do have cancer, you will have a better chance of survival, because of early detection.

Types of screening programs

Cancer Care Ontario provides screening programs for breast, cervical, and colorectal cancer.

Breast Cancer

The Ontario Breast Screening Program (OBSP) has proven to be effective. In 2005, breast cancer was found in approximately one percent of participants, before they or their doctors would have discovered it on their own.

The goal of the OBSP is to achieve a 70 per cent participation rate by the year 2010, and 90 percent by the year 2020. However, the current rate is only 63 percent.

All women should have a mammogram, starting at age 50. If you have a family history of breast cancer, talk to your doctor about starting sooner.

Cervical Cancer

Among Ontario women between the ages of 20 and 49, cervical cancer is the second most common type of cancer. It is treatable, especially with early detection.

Fewer women go for screening as they get older, but you should keep going.

The OCSP recommends a Pap test at least once every three years for most women. Unlike the breast cancer program, cervical screening should start as soon as a woman is sexually active.

Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer is one of the most common cancers diagnosed in Ontario. When caught early, it is 90 percent curable.

The ColonCancerCheck screening program plays a crucial role in fighting the disease. The test consists of a simple Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) every two years.

Unlike the programs for breast and cervical cancer, colorectal cancer screening is applicable to both men and women. You should participate if you are 50 and over.

For more information, call (416) 971-9800, or go to the website of Cancer Care Ontario (Click here).

CNM