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Ontario rapper continues push to lower colorectal screening in Canada: 'One person dying from it is enough'

Bishop Brigante's cancer battle is looking up, but he's still aiming to help younger Canadians get screened earlier.

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Bishop Brigante is urging medical professionals and policymakers to lower the age criteria for colorectal cancer screening in Canada. (Photo courtesy of Bishop Brigante)
Bishop Brigante is urging medical professionals and policymakers to lower the age criteria for colorectal cancer screening in Canada. (Photo courtesy of Bishop Brigante)

When Bishop Brigante was first diagnosed with colorectal cancer in October 2023, he initially wanted to lay low and fight his battle in private. But after learning many people within his circle lacked knowledge about their overall health, he realized he needed to kickstart some change.

"A lot of people grew up scared of doctors because they didn't want bad news, they don't like doctors because it's a scary thing," the Scarborough, Ont.-born rapper previously told Yahoo Canada. "I've had so many of my peers in the music industry, so many of my peers from communities I've grown up in like, 'What is this?'

"It's unbelievable to me the percentage of people that I will get on the phone with that have no idea what I'm even talking about."

The 45-year-old explained that throughout his life whenever he had symptoms like stomach pain, diarrhea or blood in his stool, health-care professionals would tell him it was hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome. When he was younger and went to his doctor in hopes of scheduling a colonoscopy, he was denied due to his age.

"They told me I had irritable bowel syndrome, which at that time I was told, 'You just have to work on your diet, fix the foods you eat' and stuff like that," Brigante recently explained on CBC Radio's "White Coat, Black Art."

Still, Brigante decided to advocate for his health. He pushed his doctor for a requisition form, and his physician eventually agreed. After the "completely painless" procedure, along with an MRI and CT scans, Brigante found out he had a tumour around six to eight centimetres that had penetrated the wall of his rectum and spread to parts of his body like his liver and lungs.

"I'm 45. I could've been fighting this in my 30s," Brigante, who's now based in Hamilton, Ont., shared. "I could've been fighting this sooner and it would've been a completely different fight."

Since starting his fight last fall, Brigante's future looks to be on the positive end. While he was initially set to undergo 12 chemotherapy sessions, he shared on social media earlier this week that he might be finished with those treatments sooner rather than later. His main tumour appears to be shrinking, and he's working towards getting to a place where he can have colorectal and peritoneal surgeries.

"Could it have been avoided? Yeah," Brigante told CBC Radio's Dr. Brian Goldman. "I have this crazy metaphor about why early detection is so important: Imagine putting yourself in a boxing ring, getting put into a pro fight, but you're handcuffed and you're blindfolded and the boxer's just beating the crap out of you for one round, for two rounds, for three rounds, for four rounds. Then all of sudden, you take off your blindfold, you take off your gloves, you take off your handcuffs — now, you're in the fight. That's stage four [cancer] to me."

Pushing for change

In late January, Brigante created a petition urging medical professionals and policymakers to push for a lower age criteria when it comes to colonoscopies in Canada. At more than 30,000 signatures as of March 27, the petition seeks for that criteria to be set at age 30, specifically for men.

Research released last month by the American Cancer Society indicated colorectal cancer is killing more young people than ever before. While it was the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related deaths for men and women younger than 50 in the 1990s, it has since grown to become the first in men and second in women amongst that age group.

In Canada, it was estimated in 2023 that 24,100 Canadians will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and 9,300 Canadians will die from it — representing 11 per cent of all cancer deaths last year.

In February, Brigante shared an update about his petition. He explained that he and his family went to the he Queen's Park Legislative Assembly of Ontario on Feb. 20 where MPP France Gelinas read his petition and had it tabled into Parliament.

"As she read out the petition, I couldn't help but remember what it was like the moment I was diagnosed with cancer. It was a nightmare," Brigante said in an update to his petition. "I was scared, sad and confused all at the same time. As she continued to read my petition, I thought about all of the people after me that will experience that same nightmare."

While battling cancer and undergoing treatment has taken a toll on his body, Brigante is all about being a warrior.

Under his own fashion brand he created in 2019 called The Ends, the hip hop artist and actor started a clothing line named "Fight Ribbon," featuring hoodies, sweatshirts and T-shirts that can be customized with various different cancer ribbons.

"I've got a big fight on my hands, but I'm fighting," Brigante told Yahoo Canada in February. "This movement is giving me even more strength because I didn't expect this many people to get involved so quickly and to be pushing the movement."

I'm so dedicated and I'm so lucky that I can even be here.Bishop Brigante

Cancer screening barriers

As Brigante continues his own personal battle, he said the push for changing the way colorectal cancer is screened is "imperative."

"It should go by symptoms, it should go by blood in the stool, it should go by fatigue," Brigante noed. "This is not an easy fight, and that's why so many people are dying.

"I honestly believe if they take away this age criteria, we will save so many lives, and that's important to me."

Both colonoscopy screenings and the fecal immunochemical test, or FIT test, are made available to people who are considered average-risk starting at age 50. In Ontario, the province continues recommending the colorectal cancer screening program at the same age. That's in line with national recommendations set by the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care (CTFPHC) and International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Still, people with a parent or sibling who's had colorectal cancer may start their screenings 10 years younger than the age their relative was when they were diagnosed. Moreover, people of any age with symptoms can still seek testing through their health-care provider.

If one person that's 15 can get it, there shouldn't be an age criteria. That's enough. One person dying from it is enough.Bishop Brigante on CBC Radio

The CTFPHC is planning to update its 2016 screening guidelines after reviewing recent studies, particularly around the rising incidence of the illness amongst younger age groups and the effectiveness of colorectal screening cancer.

Colorectal cancer is a disease that affects your large intestine or rectum, and sometimes may not present any symptoms in the early stages. (Photo via Getty Images)
Colorectal cancer is a disease that affects your large intestine or rectum, and sometimes may not present any symptoms in the early stages. (Photo via Getty Images)

A Canadian study published last year in JAMA Oncology suggested lowering the colorectal cancer screening age to even age 40 or 45 would likely reduce the number of new cases and deaths. Using a microsimulation tool, researchers found dropping the minimum age to 45 would result in roughly 12,188 fewer cases and 5,261 fewer deaths over a 40-year period. Reducing the minimum age to 40 would take that further, with 18,135 fewer cases and 7,988 fewer deaths.

Since creating his petition and getting the support from thousands of people including health-care professionals, cancer survivors and people who have lost loved ones, Brigante said he's dedicated to spreading awareness and being a leader.

"If you read the comments that people leave, they're real people," he added. "It's real people that are affected and have lost lives and lost people they love or are fighting colorectal cancer now.

"They're not just signing this petition because it's cool. They're signing this petition because they want to save lives."

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