Background: The benefits of endoscopic testing for colorectal-cancer screening are uncertain. We evaluated the effect of screening with flexible sigmoidoscopy on colorectal-cancer incidence and mortality.
Methods: From 1993 through 2001, we randomly assigned 154,900 men and women 55 to 74 years of age either to screening with flexible sigmoidoscopy, with a repeat screening at 3 or 5 years, or to usual care. Cases of colorectal cancer and deaths from the disease were ascertained.
Results: Of the 77,445 participants randomly assigned to screening (intervention group), 83.5% underwent baseline flexible sigmoidoscopy and 54.0% were screened at 3 or 5 years. The incidence of colorectal cancer after a median follow-up of 11.9 years was 11.9 cases per 10,000 person-years in the intervention group (1012 cases), as compared with 15.2 cases per 10,000 person-years in the usual-care group (1287 cases), which represents a 21% reduction (relative risk, 0.79; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.72 to 0.85; P<0.001). Significant reductions were observed in the incidence of both distal colorectal cancer (479 cases in the intervention group vs. 669 cases in the usual-care group; relative risk, 0.71; 95% CI, 0.64 to 0.80; P<0.001) and proximal colorectal cancer (512 cases vs. 595 cases; relative risk, 0.86; 95% CI, 0.76 to 0.97; P=0.01). There were 2.9 deaths from colorectal cancer per 10,000 person-years in the intervention group (252 deaths), as compared with 3.9 per 10,000 person-years in the usual-care group (341 deaths), which represents a 26% reduction (relative risk, 0.74; 95% CI, 0.63 to 0.87; P<0.001). Mortality from distal colorectal cancer was reduced by 50% (87 deaths in the intervention group vs. 175 in the usual-care group; relative risk, 0.50; 95% CI, 0.38 to 0.64; P<0.001); mortality from proximal colorectal cancer was unaffected (143 and 147 deaths, respectively; relative risk, 0.97; 95% CI, 0.77 to 1.22; P=0.81).
Conclusions: Screening with flexible sigmoidoscopy was associated with a significant decrease in colorectal-cancer incidence (in both the distal and proximal colon) and mortality (distal colon only). (Funded by the National Cancer Institute; PLCO ClinicalTrials.gov number, NCT00002540.).