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Detecting colorectal cancer early to improve survival rates

DNA strandColorectal cancer (CRC) isn’t an easy topic to discuss, but with the highest rate in Canada, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador can’t afford not to.

Often called colon or rectal cancer, CRC affects both men and women and the province has the highest familial rate in the world. Thanks to a new community outreach research initiative, these numbers will hopefully drop in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Colorectal cancer is the most frequent cancer not caused by smoking and is a cancer frequently caused by inherited predisposition,” explains Dr. Pat Parfrey with Memorial University of Newfoundland’s (MUN) Faculty of Medicine.

A provincial network of outreach offices in Grand Falls-Windsor, Corner Brook and St. John's will work together to identify families at high risk of CRC. “We will identify patients with familial CRC, try and identify the genetic cause and enroll family members in screening programs to prevent cancer.”

By developing the genetic basis of CRC, it may be possible to take preventative action. Members of high risk families, or carriers of gene mutations, will be entered in screening programs to prevent cancer, which will include regular colonoscopies. “Screening of family members from high risk families is very likely to prevent colorectal cancer and improve survival,” says Dr. Bridget Fernandez, Chief of Provincial Medical Genetics Program.

A successful screening program could mean many things for medical science. The same screening process used for CRC may also be used with other conditions such as sudden cardiac death. By analyzing a person’s genes, it may be possible to render prescriptions more efficient and decrease bad reactions to medications.

The Community Genetics Clinics not only benefit the health, but also the economy, of the province. “Our research programs have resulted in considerable economic benefits for Newfoundland and Labrador through research funding and the employment,” says Dr. Parfrey.

So what does this mean for Newfoundland and Labrador?

“Both our Provincial Cancer Care and Medical Genetics programs believe it will reduce the incidence of cancer,” says Vicki Kaminski, CEO of Eastern Health.

As Newfoundland and Labrador has proven, it really does help to talk about it.

For more information about CRC and other forms of cancer, visit the Canadian Cancer Society at

Project: Genetic research into human genetic disorders (including CRC)
Proponent: Memorial University’s Faculty of Medicine
Location: Grand Falls-Windsor, Corner Brook and St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador
Total AIF funding: up to $3 million over a five-year period
Total CAF funding: up to $742 thousand over 2 years
Total project cost: estimated at $22.6 million

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Published in 2010