Everybody knows that colonoscopy is the best test to screen for colorectal cancer and that colonoscopies save lives. Everybody may be wrong. Colonoscopy is increasingly viewed as the gold standard for colorectal cancer screening, but its reputation is not based on solid evidence. In reality,  it is not yet known for certain whether colonoscopy can help reduce the number of deaths from colorectal cancer. Screening with fecal occult blood testing (FOBT) and flexible sigmoidoscopy are supported by better evidence, but questions remain.  It seems our zeal for screening tests has outstripped the evidence. 

Statistics show that the life-time risk for an adult American to develop colorectal cancer (CRC) is approximately 6%. Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. In the US there are currently 146,970 new cases   and 50,630 deaths each year. Between 1973 and 1995, mortality from CRC declined by 20.5%, and incidence declined by 7.4% in the United States.  

The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends screening for colorectal cancer (CRC) using fecal occult blood testing, sigmoidoscopy, or colonoscopy, in adults, beginning at age 50 years and continuing until age 75 years.  

The American Cancer Society divides the available tests into these two categories and makes these recommendations for frequency of testing:

Tests that find polyps and cancer

  • flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years* 
  • colonoscopy every 10 years 
  • double contrast barium enema every 5 years* 
  • CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy) every 5 years*

Tests that mainly find cancer

  • fecal occult blood test (FOBT) every year*,**
  • fecal immunochemical test (FIT) every year*,**
  • stool DNA test (sDNA), interval uncertain*

 Screening by colonoscopy seems to make more sense than other screening methods, because you can actually see the entire inside of the colon. Colon cancer is preceded by polyps and adenomas that progress to cancer. When a polyp is seen, it can be removed during the procedure. In this study, colonoscopic polypectomy resulted in a lower than expected incidence of colorectal cancer. But other studies suggest that the progression to cancer is not a steady process, and that  adenomas may regress.

There is good evidence here and here that any benefit of colonoscopy is restricted to left-sided colon cancers, with no impact on right-sided colon cancer; we don’t understand why. Some possible explanations are discussed here.  

There are pros and cons to each of the different screening tests.  Barium enemas and CT virtual colonoscopy involve significant doses of radiation. Colonoscopy only needs to be done every 10 years, but it involves an uncomfortable bowel prep, requires sedation, can cause serious complications like bowel perforation, and is unacceptable to some patients. FOBT screening is painless and harmless but has a lot of false positives and requires annual testing. Getting patients to come back every year for FOBT is problematic. Compliance and cost must be considered. Colonoscopy is expensive and there are not enough colonoscopists to screen everyone.

 Apart from all those peripheral considerations, what do we know about the bottom line: the ability of each screening method to prevent deaths from colon cancer?  According to the National Cancer Institute,  

  • Studies have shown that FOBT, when performed every 1 to 2 years in people ages 50 to 80, can help reduce the number of deaths due to colorectal cancer by 15 to 33 percent.
  • Studies suggest that regular screening with sigmoidoscopy after age 50 can help reduce the number of deaths from colorectal cancer, perhaps by as much as 50%, but the quality of evidence is not as good as for FOBT.
  • it is not yet known for certain whether colonoscopy can help reduce the number of deaths from colorectal cancer.

No randomized controlled trials have tested whether colonoscopy reduces the incidence of CRC. Support for the role of colonoscopy in CRC prevention derives from indirect evidence and observational studies.

There is an excellent review of all the pertinent studies here.  Even though studies show that screening can reduce disease-specific mortality from colorectal cancer, there is little evidence that it reduces all-cause mortality.  So as far as we know, screening probably won’t prolong your life. It seems like it should: I don’t understand why it doesn’t, and it bothers me. This certainly isn’t the message we’re getting from the media and from the medical profession.

I’m guessing that if the appropriate studies were done and the technique of colonoscopy were optimized, a reduction in colon cancer deaths would be demonstrated. I’m guessing that colonoscopy would detect more cancers and precancerous lesions than FOBT or sigmoidoscopy, but I’m wondering whether the benefits of colonoscopy would outweigh the additional cost and risks compared to other screening methods. And I’m disturbed that a reduction in all-cause mortality has not yet been clearly shown for any screening method. We need more research to help us understand these issues.

Pending better evidence, I support the current USPSTF recommendations. I think patients should be told the pros and cons and choose which screening test they prefer. I have chosen annual FOBT for myself.

Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.