Wilmot Cancer Center: Colonoscopies Save Lives

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. – You may have recently seen some headlines calling into question how much colonoscopies actually save lives.  The controversy stems from a New England Journal of Medicine article on a large Nordic-European clinical trial.

National news articles covering the study highlighted a finding that colonoscopies only cut the risk of colon cancer by about 18 percent and didn’t substantially reduce deaths — which the Wilmot Cancer Institute says is far different than previous multiple studies showing that colonoscopy does, in fact, significantly decrease cancer incidence and death.

Dr. Danielle Marino, the Medical Director of the Wilmot Cancer Institute Hereditary Cancer Screening and Risk Reduction Program says the devil is in the details of the European study, “in the group that was invited for colonoscopy only 42% of the patients actually underwent the colonoscopy so, it’s really hard to impact outcomes of colon cancer if you didn’t actually undergo the procedure” she tells News10NBC, “if you look only at those 42% of patients who did undergo a colonoscopy there was a 50% reduction in colon cancer deaths and that is in line with all of the other literature we have to support that colonoscopies save lives.”

Dr. Marino worries people will be misled by the national headlines, “we’ve all been working really hard to get our screening rates up and these flashy headlines out there saying colonoscopy doesn’t save lives can totally walk back all of that effort that we’ve all been putting forth here,” she says adding the reality is that, “we’re noticing an alarming increase in the number of patients who are below the age of 50 who are developing colon cancer.”

The European study results, Dr. Marino says, show that it’s difficult and complicated to investigate the risks and benefits of cancer screenings across populations in the real world, where many people are reluctant to undergo invasive tests but, “the bottom line is it (study) did show that in the patients who underwent colonoscopy there was a decreased risk of death in those patients and I think that should have been the headline.”

Colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death for men and women.  It is most often diagnosed in people ages 65 to 74. In the U.S., it is recommended that adults ages 45 to 75 get screened to obtain substantial benefits; younger adults starting at age 40 are also recommended for screening if they have a family history of colorectal cancer or certain medical conditions.