The study looked at more than 17,000 men and women ages 55-64 who said they were willing to take a colon cancer screening test.
That test: flexible sigmoidoscopy, an exam that requires a similar night-before bowel prep as a colonoscopy but which is much simpler and less risky to perform. While colonoscopies usually are performed with anesthesia and by a gastroenterologist, sigmoidoscopies require no sedation and can be performed by general practitioners or trained nurses.
The downside of sigmoidoscopy is that it can see only the left side of the colon. Can that really be enough to prevent colon cancer?
Yes, find Wendy S. Atkin, PhD, MPH, of Imperial College, London, and colleagues. Atkin's team was looking for a cost-effective way to screen the entire U.K. population for colon cancer. Early studies suggested that just a single sigmoidoscopy around age 60 could prevent colon cancer.
How? Sigmoidoscopy is just as good as colonoscopy at finding and removing precancerous colon polyps in the left side of the colon, where two out of three colon cancers arise. Atkin's research suggested that a look at the left colon can identify the minority of people who need a full colonoscopy -- and that it can also identify the majority of people who will never need another invasive colon screening test.
Now it seems that all this may be true. Eleven years later, people who got that single sigmoidoscopy had 33% fewer colon cancers and 43% fewer deaths from colon cancer.
"It's a one-off test ... and it probably will be done just once in a lifetime," Atkins said at a news briefing. "It works well to prevent cancer in the [left] bowel. We don't think it can prevent cancers higher up in the bowel, but we can detect them early using the existing [fecal occult blood] test."
Moreover, the study finds that colon cancer risk continues to decline in the years following flexible sigmoidoscopy.