11/05/2012 02:35 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Earlier cancer detection, fewer colonoscopies pledged with new screening program

VANCOUVER - Only months into Doug Shirlaw's retirement, the 30-year veteran of the Vancouver Police Department was diagnosed with colon cancer.

He began 48 weeks of chemotherapy and attended supports groups, watching with alarm as other participants died.

"Because they were diagnosed late and were beyond treatment," said the 58-year-old Monday. "If those people had been diagnosed early, the outcome could have been totally different."

Six years later, he is a survivor and is championing a new screening program that's being rolled out in British Columbia, will make getting tested easier and spot the disease sooner.

"This is a much better test," said Dr. Dean Kolodziejczyk, a cancer doctor in Victoria.

"So every person we can avoid actually needing to come in and see someone like me, for treatment of advanced cancers, if we can pick those people up early and cure people early. That's the best possible scenario."

The program will launch on April 1, 2013, with a screening tool called the "fecal immunochemical test" that can be completed at home before getting sent to the lab.

The test aims to pick up trace amounts of blood in a person's stool. The existing test isn't quite as sensitive as the incoming test, meaning people will only need to take two samples instead of three. The result will also be determined by a computer, said Kolodziejczyk.

It will be referred by family doctors to all people between the ages of 50 and 74, regardless of whether they have symptoms, once every two years.

"Right now, it's sort of a hit or miss process, whether your doctor suggests it to you. And when you do go, you have to pay for the test," said Cathy Adair, vice-president of cancer control with the Canadian Cancer Society.

"It really, systematically targets the population that can benefit the most."

The tests, conducted by health authorities across the province, will be co-ordinated, meaning the same assessment process will be used. It also means there will be a centralized system for data collection and monitoring, which will mean the province will know how many people take the test, as well as their outcomes.

Reminders will be sent out to patients and doctors when it's time for rescreening.

The province will cover the cost of the test for the treatment group, estimated at about $35, but Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said she doesn't know how much the program will cost the government overall because it's unclear how many people will take the test.

"It's unusual for government not to have an estimate ... but what we've said here is we are going to fund the cost," she told reporters after making the announcement at Vancouver General Hospital.

"If we can pick these cancers up early, it will be a life saver and there's a tremendous benefit to that, part of which is cost, for sure."

Regular screening is crucial because most colorectal cancers grow slowly, without generating signs or symptoms until an advanced stage.

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of death in men, and the third in women. But if discovered early enough, it is 90 per cent curable.

About 2,850 British Columbians will be diagnosed with the disease this year, and 1,150 will die.

The new program will be built on the experiences of a pilot program called Colon Check that has been running in several B.C. communities since 2009. Testing is expected to be available from all health authorities by end of summer 2013.

People younger than the targeted group who have a history of colon cancer or are experiencing symptoms are advised to see a doctor and can pay to take the test, too.

People also won't have to change their diet or medication for the test to work.

"From a patient standpoint, it is a much easier test to be using," Kolodziejczyk said.

"There will be less people going for colonoscopies who do not have the problem."