The decision whether to launch a screening program in asymptomatic patients of average risk for colorectal cancer and the selection of the appropriate protocol for screening are complex issues. There are still many unanswered questions. Many organizations such as the American Cancer Society, the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for the Prevention of Colorectal Cancer, and the U.S. National Cancer Institute advocate screening with annual Hemoccult tests and screening with flexible sigmoidoscopy every 3 to 5 years in patients more than 50 years of age. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the Canadian Task Force on the Periodic Health Examination, and the International Union Against Cancer have not recommended screening asymptomatic average-risk patients for colorectal cancer. One study showed a small but significant benefit (3 per 1000) of the rehydrated annual Hemoccult test in reducing mortality from colorectal cancer. To embark on a mass screening strategy as recommended, however, would require significant costs, increases in physician training, improved access to the requisite technology, and enhancements in patient and physician compliance. Furthermore, the high false positive rates of the rehydrated Hemoccult tests would lead to many unnecessary tests, causing greater expense as well as patient discomfort and anxiety. It is, therefore, premature to recommend mass screening for colorectal cancer in asymptomatic individuals at this time. Further research is needed to identify risk factors (such as genetic markers) better and to develop and evaluate screening strategies targeted at those with high risk for colorectal cancer. In the meantime, efforts at primary prevention for the general population should be increased (through nutrition and exercise). Patients over the age of 50 who desire screening should be given information of the benefits and risks of screening and together with their physicians decide on a screening strategy that suits their needs and values.
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