Evaluating the long-term effect of FOBT in colorectal cancer screening

Cancer Epidemiol. 2012 Feb;36(1):e54-60. doi: 10.1016/j.canep.2011.09.011. Epub 2011 Nov 9.


Background: Cancer screening has been effective in detecting tumors early before symptoms appear. However, the effectiveness of the regular fecal occult blood test (FOBT) in colorectal cancer in the long term has not been quantified.

Methods: We applied the statistical method developed by Wu and Rosner using data from the Minnesota Colon Cancer Control Study (MCCCS). All initially asymptomatic participants were classified into four mutually exclusive groups: true-early-detection, no-early-detection, over-diagnosis, and symptom-free life; human lifetime was treated as a random variable and is subject to competing risks. All participants in the screening program will eventually fall into one of the four outcomes above. Predictive inferences on the percentages of the four outcomes for both genders were made using the Minnesota study data.

Results: Depending on gender, screening frequency and age at the initial screening, for all participants the probability of "symptom-free-life" varies between 95.3% and 96.6%; the probability of "true-early-detection" is 1.9-3.8%; the probability of no-early-detection is 0.3-2.0%; the probability of over-diagnosis is 0.16-0.3%. Among those with colorectal cancer detected by regular FOBT, the probability of over-diagnosis is lower than expected and is between 6% and 9%, with 95% CI (2.5%, 21.3%) for females and (1.9%, 44.7%) for males. The probability of true-early-detection increases as screening interval decreases. The probability of no-early-detection decreases as screening interval decreases.

Conclusion: The probability of over-diagnosis among the screen-detected cases is not as high as previously thought. We hope this outcome can provide valuable information on the effectiveness of the FOBT in colorectal cancer detection in the long term.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / blood*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Early Detection of Cancer / methods
  • Feces / chemistry*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunologic Tests
  • Male
  • Mass Screening / methods
  • Middle Aged
  • Occult Blood*
  • Reagent Kits, Diagnostic


  • Reagent Kits, Diagnostic