Colonoscopy saves lives, according to a study that provides the first direct evidence that the procedure keeps people from dying of colon cancer, reducing that risk by half.
The research, reported yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that removing precancerous polyps spotted during a colonoscopy, a standard procedure today, dramatically cuts the chance of dying from the disease. The study followed 2,602 patients who had the suspicious growths removed during the test over a median of 15.8 years.
“It is a strong study that reiterates what many of us in the field had suspected,” said Scott Kopetz, a colon cancer specialist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, who was not involved with the study. “It is one of the first that gives us an estimate on the amount that the death rate has been reduced.”
Colonoscopy, in which a tube with a camera is slid up the rectum so a doctor can visualize the colon, is one of colon cancer screening several tests recommended by the American Cancer Society and other groups. Polyps found can be removed during the procedure. Many people avoid colonoscopy because it requires an unpleasant preparation to clean out the bowel.
The finding could help doctors convince more people to come in for colon cancer screening, Kopetz said.
“It can be very difficult” to get patients to do it, said Kopetz, in a telephone interview. “There is the embarrassment barrier, there is the, ‘I don’t want anyone sticking a probe in my rectum’ barrier. There are a lot of social taboos around it.” Even family members of his patients with colon cancer sometimes won’t get tested, he said.
Worth the Effort
The new result “is very helpful in continuing to make the argument” that colonoscopies are worth the effort, he said.
While the latest research doesn’t prove colonoscopies save lives in the general population, it supports colon cancer screening guidelines, said Ann Zauber, a biostatistician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the report’s lead author, in a telephone interview.
“We are really reducing colon cancer deaths remarkably,” said Zauber. “It is a very strong effect long term.”
The American Cancer Society recommends that men and women get a colonoscopy or another colon cancer screening test such as fecal occult blood test starting at age 50, according to its website. Colonoscopy should be done every ten years, it recommends.