Health scares prompt promotion of new colon cancer screening test

Gerry O'Shaughnessy

Hamilton resident Gerry O’Shaughnessy hopes to keep his health scares in the past.

“I’ve been through the mill with my health, that’s for sure,” says Gerry, 65. “But I know, moving forward, that there are certain changes I need to make. One is to quit smoking, which is really challenging after a lifetime of cigarettes. The other, which is easier, is to make time for colon cancer screening.”

The operations manager for Hamilton-based plumbing company Birnie and Sons suffered a heart attack and small stroke last December. The experience convinced him to quit smoking – something he is trying to accomplish through a combination of counselling and nicotine replacement therapy. He also had a colon cancer scare a few years back after large polyp was discovered during a colonoscopy. It helped him appreciate the importance of colon cancer screening for prevention and early detection.

“The polyp was a big concern, but it turned out not to be cancer,” says Gerry, who along with four of his colleagues at Birnie and Sons is helping promote a new at-home test that screens for signs of colorectal cancer, commonly called colon or bowel cancer. Joining him are company directors Bob and Roy Birnie, company owner Rob Birnie and plumber Paul Spelman.

The fecal immunochemical test (FIT) is now available free across the province through Cancer Care Ontario’s organized colon cancer screening program, ColonCancerCheck. This test is for Ontario residents, ages 50 to 74, with no first-degree relative (parent, brother, sister or child) diagnosed with colon cancer and no symptoms of the disease such as changes in bowel habits, rectal bleeding or abdominal pain. This screening program targets the 50-to-74 age range because that’s when people are at the greatest risk of developing colon cancer.

Anyone with symptoms or first-degree family member diagnosed with colon cancer should speak with their healthcare provider about next steps, since they may be at an increased risk of developing the disease.

Gerry had a colonoscopy after experiencing symptoms. “I would encourage anyone at increased risk to ask their family doctor about which tests are right for them,” he said.  “For everyone else who’s screening age, I would urge them to take the FIT to check for signs.”

Screening with FIT can catch signs of colon cancer early, when it’s easier to treat. When caught early, nine out of every 10 people with colon cancer can be cured. However, once colon cancer spreads to other parts of the body it’s much more difficult to treat.

FIT is a simple, safe and accurate at-home test that checks stool (poop) for tiny amounts of blood, which could be caused by colon cancer and/or growths called polyps that can turn into cancer over time. Eligible residents are encouraged to take the test every two years.

FIT kits are available through family doctors or nurse practitioners. Anyone without a healthcare provider can call Telehealth Ontario’s colon cancer screening line at 1-866-828-9213 or the Mobile Cancer Screening Coach at 1-855-338-3131. LifeLabs will mail eligible people a FIT kit following a request from their provider. The completed test can be mailed back to the lab or dropped off at a LifeLabs Patient Service Centre. For LifeLabs locations, visit

If the test comes back positive, the next step is a colonoscopy for a closer look.

FIT replaces the fecal occult blood test (FOBT) for routine screening. FIT is a more sensitive screening test which means it is better at detecting colon cancer and pre-cancerous polyps. It’s also more user-friendly and requires only one stool sample. And there are no medication or dietary restrictions (including vitamin C) with FIT.

As champions for FIT, Gerry and his colleagues are sharing their personal stories about why they make time for colon cancer screening through social media and community campaigns organized by the Regional Cancer Program. You can read their stories at or follow on the Regional Cancer Program’s social media: Facebook @screenforlifecoach and Twitter @HNHB_Cancer

Colorectal cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in Ontario and the second most common cause of cancer deaths, said Dr. Barry Lumb, Regional Endoscopy Lead for ColonCancerCheck, Physician in Chief at Hamilton Health Sciences and Professor with McMaster University’s Department of Medicine.

“Screening is important because when caught early enough, 90 per cent of people with colon cancer can be cured. We are grateful to have Gerry and his colleagues as cancer screening champions because men, in particular, have a tendency to put off seeing their healthcare provider until they’re experiencing symptoms. We want all eligible Ontario residents to be proactive by staying up-to-date with cancer screening. By catching signs of colon cancer early instead of waiting until symptoms develop, they’ll have more treatment options.”

Eligible Ontario residents will continue to receive letters inviting them to get screened, telling them about their test results, letting them know if they need to get more tests done and reminding them when it is time to be screened again.

For more information on colon cancer screening, visit