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Retiring specialist wants people to get behind colon cancer screening

Colon cancer screening program has expanded province-wide since it started in 2012

By Bernice Hillier, CBC News

Dr. Tony Tavenor says people don’t mind joking about human waste — just Google "poop jokes" — but he’s hoping people will give the matter some serious attention instead.

Tavenor is an internal medicine specialist in Corner Brook who retired on Friday after a career dedicated in large part to colon cancer prevention.

"We only talk about poop in comedy shows," he told the Corner Brook Morning Show. "That’s the only place you see it openly talked about, on TV, in bathroom humor jokes. I don’t know why."

’We only talk about poop in comedy shows. That’s the only place you see it openly talked about.’ - Dr. Tony Tavenor

Tavenor’s done his part to change things.

He helped develop the Colon Cancer Screening Program that was initially introduced in Western Newfoundland in 2012 and has since expanded province-wide.

Test for colon cancer from your own bathroom with government initiative

The program is aimed at adults aged 50-74 who have no family history or increased risk of colon cancer, but who would like to be screened.

Tavenor said it’s rewarding to see how successful the program has been, with 41 cancers diagnosed in this province last year alone in people who had no symptoms.

"Most of them will do well because they’re so early and caught before there’s any spread."

"By the time you get symptoms in bowel cancer, there’s a good chance that it has spread to the lymph nodes or even further."

Do-it-yourself test kit

The Colon Cancer Screening Program involves a simple at-home test in which people collect stool samples and mail them in to be tested.

colon cancer screening Colon cancer screening kits are available throughout the province for adults aged 50-74 who have no family history or increased risk of colon cancer. (CBC)

As Tavenor explained the procedure, it was obvious he’s gone over the information many times with patients through the years, and doesn’t mind injecting a bit of humour.

"You go to the bathroom, you take your favourite reading, you do your business, and you put the brush from the kit in the stool, screw it into the kit. You do this twice, drop it in the envelope provided and off it goes in the mail."

If blood is detected, the patient will be booked for a colonoscopy, in which a camera is threaded up through the bowel to check for polyps, which can be a precursor to colon cancer.

If a polyp is detected, it is removed and sent for analysis.

"We don’t develop cancer just like a click of your fingers. It starts first as what we call a polyp, which looks like a little mushroom in your bowel, and they leak small amounts of blood."

Tavenor said the idea is to catch polyps before they become cancerous or to pick up cancers that are still in the early stages.

Last year, in addition to the 41 people diagnosed with cancer, Tavenor said the screening program resulted in the removal of polyps in more than 700 other Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

Cancer cases projected to rise 40% in 15 years as population ages, grows

He says statistics show about half of those were at high risk of turning to cancer.

Early detection saves lives

Lorraine Packwood of Cow Head is thankful that Tavenor was such a believer in the program’s value.

She randomly came across a pamphlet about colon cancer screening during an unrelated medical visit in 2013.

’It’s free, it’s done in the privacy of my own home, what do I have to lose?’
- Lorraine Packwood

She was having no symptoms or problems with her bowels, but she decided to request a test kit anyway.

"It’s free, it’s done in the privacy of my own home, what do I have to lose?" she recalls.

It turns out Packwood had a lot to gain by taking the test, as it was eventually determined she had colon cancer.

"That particular day was a life-changing one for me," she said.

"I was called and told for sure that it was cancer. It’s not a word that anyone likes to hear, and we just don’t focus on these things unless it happens to us."

hi-colorectal-cp-852 People who want colorectal screening no longer have to see a medical specialist in this province. Since 2012, the province has offered do-it-yourself testing kits that can be used in the privacy of your own home. (Canadian Press)

She had surgery, did not require chemotherapy, and is in good health today as a result of the early diagnosis.

"If I wasn’t tested when I was, the cancer would most definitely have spread into my body, but the cancer itself was contained. So I was a lucky one."

Biggest accomplishment

Tavenor said it’s always preferable to catch polyps before they turn cancerous.

"If you’re going to find cancer, this is how we want to find it, before you have symptoms, because bowel cancer is curable, if we get it early enough."

As Tavenor retired on Friday and looked back on his years in medical practice, he’s proud of his contribution to the screening program.

"This is the biggest accomplishment of my career. I’ve been involved in the planning of this from the beginning."

"We’ve got a lot of people treated early. And the real beauty of it is going to be 10 or 15 years from now, when somebody stands up in a colonoscopy suite and says, ’We just don’t see cancers like we used to.’ And that’s what we look forward to."

Anyone aged 50-74 who wants a test kit from the Colon Cancer Screening Program should call 1-855-614-0144.

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