Screening and primary prevention of colorectal cancer: a review of sex-specific and site-specific differences

J Med Screen. 2013;20(3):125-48. doi: 10.1177/0969141313501292.


Background: Colorectal cancer (CRC) is the second commonest cancer in England. Incidence rates for colorectal adenomas and advanced colorectal neoplasia are higher in men than in women of all age groups. The male-to-female ratio for CRC incidence rates differs for different parts of the large bowel.

Objective: To summarize the current evidence on colorectal screening and prevention, focussing on potential differences in benefits between sexes and colorectal sites.

Methods (i): , We reviewed the evidence from randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of the impact of different screening approaches on CRC incidence and mortality, overall, for each sex separately, and for subsites of the large bowel. (ii) We reviewed studies comparing detection parameters for faecal immunochemical tests for haemoglobin (FIT) with guaiac FOBt (gFOBt). (iii) The role of aspirin in CRC prevention in the general population was reviewed using evidence from RCTs, with specific emphasis on the differences observed between sexes and lesion site.

Results: (i) Our intention-to-treat random-effects meta-analysis showed that once-only flexible sigmoidoscopy (FS) screening performed on average-risk individuals aged 55 + decreased CRC incidence by 18% and mortality by 28%, but sex-specific results were lacking. (ii) Modern quantitative FIT were superior to qualitative gFOBt in average-risk population screening in their ability to discriminate between individuals with and without colorectal neoplasia. Some recent FIT studies suggest varying operating characteristics in men and women. (iii) Evidence of an effect of aspirin on the incidence of CRC (in particular, proximal disease) in both sexes aged 40 and over at average-risk of CRC is emerging.

Conclusions: We encourage researchers of CRC screening and prevention to publish their results by sex where possible. Pilot studies should be undertaken before implementation of quantitative FIT in a national screening programme to establish the appropriate threshold. Finally, individual risk assessment for CRC and non-CRC events, will be necessary to make an informed decision on whether a patient should receive aspirin chemoprevention.

Keywords: Colorectal cancer; aspirin; faecal occult blood test; flexible sigmoidoscopy; guaiac; immunochemical; screening; sex-specific; site-specific.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aspirin / pharmacology
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / pathology
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • England / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Mass Screening
  • Middle Aged
  • Occult Blood
  • Primary Prevention
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Sex Distribution
  • Sigmoidoscopy


  • Aspirin