Intended for healthcare professionals

Clinical Review ABC of colorectal cancer


BMJ 2000; 321 doi: (Published 21 October 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:1004
  1. John H Scholefield

    Colorectal cancer is the third commonest malignancy in the United Kingdom, after lung and breast cancer, and kills about 20 000 people a year. It is equally prevalent in men and women, usually occurring in later life (at age 60–70 years). The incidence of the disease has generally increased over recent decades in both developed and developing countries. Despite this trend, mortality in both sexes has slowly declined. This decrease in mortality may reflect a trend towards earlier diagnosis—perhaps as a result of increased public awareness of the disease.

    Surgery remains the mainstay of treatment for colorectal cancer, but early diagnosis makes it more likely that the tumour can be completely resected and thereby improves the chance of cure

    Why screen?

    Most colorectal cancers result from malignant change in polyps (adenomas) that have developed in the lining of the bowel 10–15 years earlier. The best available evidence suggests that only 10% of 1 cm adenomas become malignant after 10 years. The incidence of adenomatous polyps in the colon increases with age, and although adenomatous polyps can be identified in about 20% of the population, most of these are small and unlikely to undergo malignant change. The vast majority (90%) of adenomas can be removed at colonoscopy, obviating the need for surgery. Other types of polyps occurring in the colon— such as metaplastic (or hyperplastic) polyps—are usually small and are much less likely than adenomas to become malignant.

    Colon cancer

    Colorectal cancer is therefore a common condition, with a known premalignant lesion (adenoma). As it takes a relatively long time for malignant transformation from adenoma to carcinoma, and outcomes are markedly improved by early detection of adenomas and early cancers, the potential exists to reduce disease mortality through screening asymptomatic individuals for adenomas and early cancers.

    Which screening test for population screening?

    Education about bowel cancer is poor. A …

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