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Screening can reduce incidence of bowel cancer

People with bowel cancer who had colonoscopies tended to live longer, study shows

People with bowel cancer who had colonoscopies tended to live longer, study shows

Faecal occult blood test for bowel cancer
Picture: SPL

Screening could reduce deaths from bowel cancer by up to 45%, researchers have said.

Drawing on data from nearly 13,000 people with bowel cancer, researchers from the University of South Australia found that faecal occult blood testing (FOBT) with a follow-up colonoscopy plays a crucial role in identifying the disease before symptoms appear. 

FOBT is used in the bowel cancer screening programme in Northern Ireland, while in England, Scotland and Wales the faecal immunochemical test (FIT) is used. There are plans to start using FIT in Northern Ireland in 2020.

The study drew on data from the South Australian Cancer Registry, which indicates that having one pre-diagnostic colonoscopy is associated with a 17% reduction in cancer deaths, two pre-diagnostic colonoscopy procedures with a 27% reduction and three or more such procedures with a 45% reduction. 

Most bowel cancers can be cured if detected early

Of the 12,906 records analysed, 37% of people had had pre-diagnostic colonoscopies and were more likely to live longer than those who were diagnosed after experiencing cancer symptoms.

Bowel cancer is responsible for the second highest number of cancer deaths in Australia after lung cancer, but 90% can be cured if detected early, according to the Cancer Council Australia

The authors suggest that these findings indicate the benefits of increasing awareness of, uptake and adherence to, existing screening procedures.


Ming L, Olver I, Keefe D et al (2019) Pre-diagnostic colonoscopies reduce cancer mortality – results from linked population-based data in South Australia. BMC Cancer. 9, 856. doi:10.1186/s12885-019-6092-4

Compiled by Dion Smyth, lecturer-practitioner in cancer and palliative care at Birmingham City University

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