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Colon Cancer Screening Tests Work, Studies Report

Colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy and even fecal blood testing all lower risk of cancer death

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The study team used death records to see which of the original study participants had died of colon cancer by 2008.

Those who underwent annual testing had a 32 percent reduced risk of colon cancer death, while biennial testing reduced colon cancer death rates by 22 percent, researchers reported.

Brooks said the fecal blood test findings were "of particular importance, because there is the perception among many primary-care clinicians that by offering patients the stool test they are somehow offering them an inferior test."

Patients who now undergo a fecal blood test should expect to see even better protection from cancer, said Dr. Theodore Levin, who wrote an editorial accompanying the two studies in the journal. Levin is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

"The old fecal blood test that was done in the Minnesota trial has been improved and enhanced through modern biochemical methods," said Levin, who also is a research scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research. "It's much more accurate and much more sensitive, so we would expect the benefit to be even greater today with that test."

The blood test may have some potential advantages over colonoscopy, Levin added.

Patients have to undergo an uncomfortable cleansing process prior to a colonoscopy using powerful laxatives, and if they fail to properly cleanse their colon, it could hamper doctors' ability to detect pre-cancerous polyps. Colonoscopy also can miss smaller lesions.

"It may be that a moderately sensitive test that is done more often will have a better chance of detecting colon cancer or preventing death from colon cancer," Levin said.

The upshot of all this is that everyone should use at least one of these screening methods as recommended, Brooks said. Experts recommend that people get a colonoscopy every 10 years, flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years or fecal blood testing every year.

"My hope is people will see these studies and realize there is potential value in all these tests," Brooks said. "Choosing any one of them is far superior to not being tested."

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