Cancer screenings, longer life linked in Pitt researcher's study

Luis Fábregas
| Monday, May 21, 2012, 11:08 a.m.

Colorectal cancer screenings are vastly underutilized, a University of Pittsburgh researcher said about a study released on Monday that shows they can effectively prevent cancer and deaths.

The study, part of the National Cancer Institute's Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial, involved 154,900 men and women randomly assigned to two groups. Those who underwent colorectal cancer screening reduced their incidence of cancer by 21 percent compared to people who simply received typical care from doctors.

Those who underwent screenings experienced 26 percent fewer deaths, according to the study published in the online New England Journal of Medicine. Colorectal cancer, the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, kills more than 50,000 people annually.

"This is the chance to get no cancer," Dr. Robert Schoen, the study's lead author, said about the importance of screening. "This is the strongest evidence to the effectiveness of screening the entire colon."

Thomas Devlin of Crafton underwent a colonoscopy last week. He was not part of the study but made the appointment because he turned 50 last year and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that people ages 50 to 75 years old undergo colorectal cancer screening involving a blood test, a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy.

People at higher risk, such as a family history, should begin screening earlier.

"If you can find out early, definitely do it," said Devlin, whose screening at UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland found no abnormalities.

In the study, people assigned to the screening group underwent a test in which the lower colon is examined with a scope. Those with abnormal tests underwent a colonoscopy, in which the entire colon is examined and polyps can be removed. The screenings were conducted from 1993 through 2001.

Schoen, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said there is a need for public health announcements to encourage patients to get screenings.

He said colorectal cancer is preventable because the screenings check for what he called "pre-cancer," which can be anything from blood in the stool to lesions or polyps.

"People always ask me what's the best cancer" to get that can be treated, Schoen said. "And I always say it's the one you don't get."

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