Removing Polyps Prevents Colon and Rectal Cancer Deaths

A new study shows that removing polyps found during colonoscopies prevents deaths from colon and rectal cancer. Polyps are growths in the colon, some if which may turn into cancer.

Researchers from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center analyzed the records of 2,602 patients enrolled in the National Polyp Study, following them for as long as 23 years. They found that finding and removing non-cancerous polyps during colonoscopies resulted in 53% fewer deaths than would be expected from a group similar in race, age, and gender in the general population. The death rate of patients who had polyps removed was as low as in people who didn’t have any polyps at all.

The study, published in the Feb. 23, 2012 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, is the first to show that removing polyps prevents deaths from colon and rectal cancer. Previous studies have shown that removing polyps prevents these cancers from developing.

The new findings add to the evidence supporting the use of colonoscopy as a screening test. (Screening is testing for a disease such as cancer in people before they have any symptoms.) However, the study doesn't prove by itself that screening with colonoscopy can reduce the risk of death from colon and rectal cancer. The National Polyp Study followed a group of people who had already had polyps removed during colonoscopy. It was not a randomized, controlled trial comparing people who were screened with colonoscopy to a group of people who were not screened. Studies using this stronger type of design, which would be needed to provide this higher level of evidence, are now under way.

A colonoscopy allows a doctor to examine the entire length of the colon and rectum to look for polyps and cancer. Any polyps or other growths detected can be removed during the procedure. If they are non-cancerous or pre-cancerous, removal prevents them from turning into cancer. If they are cancerous, detecting them early, before symptoms appear, typically makes the cancer easier to treat.

Colonoscopy is one of several methods that can be used to screen for colon and rectal cancer.

Most people should begin regular screening at age 50. Those who have a family history or other risk factors for colon cancer or polyps should talk with their doctor about starting screening at a younger age or getting screened more frequently.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Colonoscopic Polypectomy and Long-Term Prevention of Colorectal-Cancer Deaths. Published in the February 23, 2012 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine (Vol. 366, No. 8). First author: Ann G. Zauber, PhD, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY.

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