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The Globe and Mail

Stop talking about bacon. Let’s have a real conversation about colon cancer

Amy Elmaleh is the executive director and co-founder of Colon Cancer Canada.

My Facebook feed is currently filled with pictures of crispy sizzling bacon – draped over burgers and piled high next to pancakes and scrambled eggs.

It's all part of the foodie backlash against the announcement by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer which earlier this week declared that processed meats from hot dogs to sausages – and of course bacon – are carcinogenic or cancer-causing.

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The resulting response has been a media and public outcry about the idea of having to give up BLT's, smoked meat or sausages. Bloggers have questioned whether the so-called "sacrifice" is worth it, healthy living advocates are offering recipe swaps to get the flavour without the risk – and so on.

This is completely the wrong conversation for Canadians to be having about cancer, especially colon cancer. When it comes to colon cancer, the most important conversation we should be having is about early screening and prevention – that's where we can actually make a difference.

The Canadian Cancer Society recognizes colon cancer as the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in Canada (excluding non-melanoma skin cancers). It is the second leading cause of death from cancer in men and the third leading cause of death from cancer in women in Canada.

Yet, if detected early, colon cancer is highly treatable – 90-per-cent treatable in fact – and that's where our public focus should be targeted – on increasing uptake on screening.

In contrast, the actual outcomes that would result from convincing Canadians to change their lunch choices are significantly less.

Yes, moderating your intake of processed meats is a good health move but as André Picard explained… "Based on these [WHO] estimates, about 66 in every 1,000 people who eat a lot of red meat or processed meat will develop colorectal cancer in their lifetime; by comparison, 56 of every 1,000 who eat very little meat, processed or otherwise, will develop colorectal cancer."

Contrast this with the fact that if we can just encourage more Canadians to overcome the "ick" factor and discomfort associated with colon cancer testing, we could dramatically reduce the devastation of the disease.

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As it stands today, although colon cancer is 90-per-cent treatable – half of those diagnosed find out too late.

Colon Cancer Canada launched an awareness campaign urging Canadians to speak with their family physicians and just "Get the Test".

For many Canadians, the test could be as simple as an at-home procedure. For those with a family history of colon cancer or who are over 50, it might be more appropriate to undergo a colonoscopy for screening.

The WHO's announcement has generated a public conversation on colon cancer – not an easy feat to accomplish – let's use the opportunity to encourage the choices that will really save lives: getting tested – that's what the meat of the conversation should be.

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