Harvard Health Letter

Does colonoscopy save lives?

A recent study suggests it might, but it isn't the last word.

The wisdom of colonoscopy screening seems obvious. The test enables a physician to examine the lining of the entire colon and to remove small, potentially precancerous growths called polyps during the exam. As a result, it has the potential not only to detect colon cancer early, but also to prevent new cases by removing polyps. It is generally assumed that colonoscopy saves lives because the procedure is good at detecting early disease.

A report from the National Polyp Study in the Feb. 23, 2012, issue of The New England Journal of Medicine supports this assumption. The study included 2,602 people who had adenomatous polyps (the type most likely to progress to cancer) removed during colonoscopies that were ordered because of findings on other screening tests, symptoms, or a family history. During an average follow-up period of about 16 years, 12 people in the study died of colorectal cancer, which was less than half of the 25.4 deaths from colon cancer normally expected in a group that size drawn from the general population.

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