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This Smudge Is for Health
(Fecal Occult Blood Test - FOBT)

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

Article printed on page 13 in the January 27-28, 2007 issue of The Mississauga News under the feature: Health & Wellness, Medical Matters.
Portrait of Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, supplied 2005
Dr. Peter W. Kujtan

I had very mixed reactions to the Ontario Health Minister's announcement (January 23, 2007) about launching Canada's first province-wide screening program to provide early detection of colorectal cancer. Bowel cancer is a topic that I wrestle with each and every day. On the one hand, I rejoiced at the government's decision to take this battle on. I sat mesmerized, eyes glued to the news. TV seems to be the new norm of how us docs learn about medical break-throughs. A "new" test available to everyone seemed to be the implication. It may even find its way into pharmacies, church pews and farmers' markets. Doctors were going to receive training in administering and interpreting it?? Whilst gasping with excitement, I missed the name of this new test. I needed to know the name. I rushed over and dragged Dr. Remtulla out of his noon therapy appointment, leaving the patient to ponder the fate of a Leafs vs. Habs (from "Les Habitants" = Montreal Canadiens) match-up on his own. "You mean the FOBT (Fecal Occult Blood Test)," he said. "It can't be the "poop-card", the FOBT has been in use for over forty years," I replied. Sure enough, the "new" test is the FOBT.

Before anyone else comes running in for one or missed his or her own doctor's lecture, I will review the basic premise. The test itself was developed in the days when Maple Leafs won Stanley Cups, and most doctors have been including it as part of your annual physical ever since. It does not find cancer directly, but looks for blood present in your stool. It is also referred to as the guaiac smear, stool test and a few unprintable adjectives. Basically, you take a little envelope home with a cardboard slide inside. You then wait for the call of nature, collect a small sample of stool, smear it on the slide. The test is more accurate if you stay in the game for at least 3 innings. You then drop or return the envelope by mail. Care should be taken to ensure the return address is correct. It does resemble an RSVP card.

A sensitive dye is dropped onto the slide to check for traces of blood. I will likely have to attend a refresher course on dropping dye on stool. A positive test does not mean you have cancer. Conditions such as hemorrhoids, infection, colitis, menstruation and many others can result in abnormal amounts of blood getting mixed in with the stool. Even some medications, eating red meats, beets, turnips and cantaloupes can give false readings. Some large polyps and bowel cancers can slowly bleed and hence the reason for the test. The major drawback is the poor ability to detect very early disease. My pathologist pal, Dr. Tim Feltis, lovingly refers to it as the test from the dark ages.

A positive test does increase the likelihood of obtaining a colonoscopy which is how the cancer is discovered. Colonoscopy refers to the camera mounted on a hose with a snipper sent through the service entrance. It is the best method to detect, treat and even cure early cancers and more importantly, pre-cancerous lesions. There has been a bottleneck in our system for some time for colonoscopic examination. I fear that the new screening program may only congest the system further. I was disappointed at the vagueness of how this truly life-saving part of the program will be expanded. Dr. Roger Hollingsworth compares colonoscopy to fishing, because it takes experience, patience and the right bait. Anytime the government dangles large amounts of money, health-care bureaucrats begin to salivate about how to spend it. Sometimes the original intention of a wonderful idea is lost due to dilution and lack of quality control. This screening program has the potential to do much good, but only if all the cogs are found and fit properly. It's as much about the know-how as it is about the tools. Building and staffing facilities to perform quality colonoscopies will be the true measure of success.

Related resources:

Fecal occult blood (FOB) refers to blood in the feces that is not visibly apparent (unlike other types of blood in stool such as melena or hematochezia). A fecal occult blood test (FOBT) checks for hidden (occult) blood in the stool (feces) ~ Wikipedia.
Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) from Colorectal Cancer Health Center, WebMD.
Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) Tests and Procedures from Mayo Clinic.
Fecal Occult Blood Test and Fecal Immunochemical Test from Lab Tests Online.
How does the FOB test work? from Public Health England.
Faecal occult blood tests (FOBT). What is an FOBT? from Cancer Council, Victoria, Australia.
Colorectal cancer screening and prevention from Ontario Ministry of Health. What you need to know about colorectal cancer, including when and where you should get screened and tips to protect yourself.
Colorectal Cancer Screening. Canada's first province-wide, population-based colorectal cancer screening program - ColonCancerCheck - launched in Ontario in 2008. The program is a partnership between the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and Cancer Care Ontario. In 2013, an estimated 8,700 Ontarians will have been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and approximately 3,350 Ontarians will die from it. Ontario has among the highest rates of colorectal cancer in the world.
Tests to Detect Colorectal Cancer and Polyps from National Cancer Institute (NCI).
Colonoscopy from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, includes illustration.

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