Background: The purpose of this study was to determine the role of fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography (PET) in localizing disease in patients with colorectal cancer with radiologically occult symptomatology or increases in carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) level.
Methods: Two hundred seventy-seven patients with colorectal cancer underwent PET scanning between November 1998 and September 2000 prompted by (1) increasing CEA level and nondiagnostic imaging or (2) symptoms with normal CEA level and nondiagnostic imaging. PET results were correlated with operative findings/histology, clinical follow-up data, and CEA level to determine PET's accuracy in determining the source of symptoms or CEA.
Results: Fifteen patients had increasing CEA levels, and 14 had abnormal PET. Two of these 14 were denied exploration because PET suggested widely metastatic disease. Nine patients underwent exploration with curative intent. In 1 patient, recurrence was not pathologically confirmed (false-positive rate, 8%). Two had disease beyond that predicted by PET, and 6 underwent complete resection and normalized their CEA levels. Four symptomatic patients with normal CEA levels and negative x-rays had abnormal PET; at exploration, 3 had no evidence of recurrence.
Conclusions: PET imaging can often accurately localize the source of radiologically occult increases in CEA level and select that subset of patients eligible for therapeutic laparotomy. Symptomatic, PET-positive patients with normal CEA levels frequently undergo nontherapeutic laparotomy, and PET findings should be interpreted with caution in these patients.