The leadership of the American Cancer Society, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, is pushing back forcefully on the conclusions of a large and randomized new study that reportedly questions the efficacy of preventative colonoscopy screenings.
“We have no problem with the study itself,” American Cancer Society CEO Karen E. Knudsen told Fox News Digital in a phone interview on Monday, Oct. 10, 2022.
“It’s the interpretation of the study that gives us grave concern,” she said — calling the study “wildly misinterpreted.”
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Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cause of cancer in the United States in 2022 and the second most common cause of cancer deaths, according to the National Cancer Institute.
The study in question was conducted by NordICC — the Northern-European Initiative on Colon Cancer — and published on Sunday in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).
The large study included over 84,000 men and women ages 55-64 from Poland, Norway and Sweden who had never gotten colonoscopies, according to the study abstract.
The participants were invited randomly to have a screening colonoscopy between June 2009 and June 2014.
A second group did not get screened at all.
In a “median follow-up” of 10 years, the group that was invited to get colonoscopies had an 18% lower risk of colorectal cancers than the group that wasn’t screened, according to the study abstract.
The group that was invited to get a colonoscopy also had a small reduction in their risk of death from colorectal cancer, but that difference was not “statistically significant,” said the abstract.
“It’s the interpretation of the study that gives us grave concern,” Knudsen said, calling the new study “wildly misinterpreted.”
When the results were restricted to the people who actually received colonoscopies — about 12,000 people, out of the more than 28,000 who were invited to have one — the procedure reduced the risk of colorectal cancer by 31% and cut the risk of dying of that cancer by 50%, as CNN reported.
Boiled down, the data reveals that a colonoscopy probably reduces a person’s chances of colorectal cancer anywhere from a low of 18% to a high of 31% — and the risk of death from 0% to as much as 50%.
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The head researcher of the study, Dr. Michael Bretthauer, leader of the clinical effectiveness group at the University of Oslo in Norway, said that as a gastroenterologist, he found the study results “disappointing,” CNN reported.
But as a researcher, he said he “has to follow the science.”
“So I think we have to embrace it,” he said, according to that outlet.
“And we may have oversold the message [on getting colonoscopies] for the last 10 years or so, and we have to wind it back a little,” he also reportedly said.
Knudsen emphatically disagrees with this — and strongly recommends that the study be examined more closely.
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The “glaring problem” with conclusions drawn from the study’s data “is the fact that only 42% of the participants who were invited to get a colonoscopy went through with it,” she said.
Nonetheless, the study’s conclusion is as follows, according to the published abstract: “Although colonoscopy is widely used as a screening test to detect colorectal cancer, its effect on the risks of colorectal cancer and related death is unclear.”
“The most important thing in this study is that almost 60% of people who were invited didn’t actually go have a colonoscopy.”
“This study was just not designed to evaluate the efficacy of colonoscopy,” Knudsen emphasized.
“I think that is the part that is probably confusing people. And we’re certainly hearing from people who are confused,” she added.
“The most important thing in this study is that almost 60% of people who were invited didn’t actually go have a colonoscopy,” she said.
“When you look at the data, it will be one thing if everyone who was asked have a colonoscopy did so,” she said. “But that’s not what happened.”
Another issue that Knudsen has with the conclusions of the study is that it draws data from “a one-time colonoscopy.”
Calling misinterpretation of this latest study “a wildfire that we’re very concerned about,” Knudsen urged everyone to “get in there and get your colonoscopy.”
She said, “We would expect that if this kind of study was going to be done — to look at the efficacy of colonoscopy — there would be at least a 10-year follow-up.”
She underscored that the time frame between when a polyp is seen by a doctor to the time that “someone would actually die of colon cancer” is going to be “at least 10 years.”
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Another variable that Knudsen said the study doesn’t take into account in terms of efficacy is the skills or background of the individual who is performing the screening.
Colonoscopy efficacy is “very dependent on the skills of the person that’s performing that procedure,” she explained
She said that another point of concern is the age group that the study included — “starting at age 55,” she noted.
The U.S. guidelines recommend screening beginning at 45, she said, “because we’re seeing such a massive increase in early-onset” incidences of cancer.
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Saying that misinterpretation of this latest study is potentially “a wildfire that we’re very concerned about,” Knudsen urged everyone to “get in there and get your colonoscopy.”
“This data does not say that colonoscopy is ineffective,” she said.
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Rather, she said, “if you look at the data, those who actually had the colonoscopy benefited from the screen.”