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Ric Williams with his father’s photo
Regular colorectal screening meant Ric Williams knew what symptoms to look for and that his colon cancer was caught early. He credits that vigilance to undergo regular tests to his father, John, (inset) a World War II aerial reconnaissance pilot. (Photos: Courtesy of Ric Williams)

Ric Williams believes in facing challenges head on, so when his family doctor recommended colon cancer screening, he didn't hesitate. 

The son of a World War II aerial reconnaissance pilot, the 75-year-old says this attitude came from a lesson his father passed down from his time in the war.

"My father's whole job was to figure out the enemies' location, size and disposition," he says. "He had a saying that he always drilled into my head and that is, 'vigilance is the price of survival.'

"So I always grew up with the belief that you have to pay attention."

It's a lesson Ric applies to all parts of his life, including his health.​​​

"I have the basic philosophy that if you live long enough everything will happen to you," he says. "My wife and I both had family members die from cancer, so I wanted to make sure I was doing what I could to be aware of it."

WCD logo 

Increased awareness and knowledge are key to recognizing early warning signs and making informed choices about health. This is one of the key issues the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) is highlighting with its "I Am And I Will" theme for this year's World Cancer Day, which is today.

With worldwide cases of cancer predicted to reach nearly 22 million by 2030, "I Am And I Will" is about how everyone can make a personal commitment to take action against cancer.

"Unfortunately, most of us will be affected by cancer at some point in our lives," says Dr. Mary Gospodarowicz, Medical Director at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. "While cure rates and available treatments are constantly improving, there's still much more to be done.

"As individuals, one way we can contribute to detecting cancers earlier and curing more cancers is through screening and promoting cancer screening in our communities and within our own families."

Screening tests help detect some types of cancer before any symptoms appear. If you're in a certain age or population group in Canada, you can go for regular screening tests that can help find breast, cervical and colorectal cancer at an early stage, and even prevent cancer by finding changes in your body that could be treated early before cancer develops.

Dr. Fayez Quereshy
Dr. Fayez Quereshy, a surgical oncologist at the Princess Margaret, says when colon cancer is detected at an earlier stage surgeons can use more minimally invasive surgical techniques. This means patients have shorter recovery times and it reduces the potential for complications. (Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Fayez Quereshy)

Colon cancer screening

About 26,800 Canadians were diagnosed with colorectal cancer and 9,400 died from it in 2017, according to the Canadian Cancer Society, making it the number two cancer killer after lung cancer.

"For various reasons people don't want to talk about colon cancer," says Dr. Fayez Quereshy, a surgical oncologist at the Princess Margaret.

"They don't want to talk about the fact they've had a change in their bowel habits or they've seen blood in their stool. People tend to be shy to describe their symptoms and so they will avoid screening and wait until their symptoms progress before seeking medical attention."

When diagnosed at Stage 4, the five-year survival rate for colorectal cancer is roughly 12 per cent. But that increases to about 90 per cent when diagnosed earlier at Stage 1, which is why screening is so important, says Dr. Quereshy.

In Ontario, patients age 50 and older are eligible for screening. Screening can be done with an at-home stool test that looks for traces of blood. If the test is positive, a colonoscopy is needed. During a colonoscopy, a physician will look for polyps – small growths in the lining of the colon that can evolve into cancer as they grow.

If no polyps are found and there is no family history of colorectal cancer, you are clear for 10 years until your next colonoscopy. If there are multiple polyps and a family history of disease, a colonoscopy is recommended every two years.

'It was a shock'

Ric was 62 years old and leading a busy life as the co-owner of a small international consulting business working from home when he discovered blood in his stool. He called himself a cab immediately to get to the nearest Emergency Department.

After running tests, it was confirmed Ric had Stage 1 colon cancer. He would have to undergo surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, but it was determined the cancer had not spread.

He has been cancer-free for 13 years.

"I was busy working, had so much going on in my life and this was really a shock," he says. "But I'm glad it was caught early. I spend more time being grateful for what I have and my family and friends."

Dr. Quereshy says he and his team are continuing to look for ways to improve the care and treatment of patients with colorectal cancer. In collaboration with Cancer Care Ontario, the team developed the Diagnostic Assessment Program (DAP), which helps coordinate care and expedite the diagnosis and treatment of patients with suspected colon cancer. The program also incorporates psychosocial support for patients, recognizing the disease can be emotionally challenging and infrequently talked about.

But what he hopes to see is fewer numbers of people who develop the disease in the first place.

"Even though I actively treat patients with cancer," says Dr. Quereshy, "nothing would make me happier than to say we led to a significant reduction in the number of people that had developed this terrible disease because of our screening initiatives."​

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