Simple and cheap test could help detect patients at risk for colorectal cancer

EXETER, United Kingdom — In the fight against cancer, one of the greatest weapons mankind has is early detection. A new study finds a simple and cheap test can help save lives by better detecting if patients are in danger of developing colorectal cancer.

Researchers from the University of Exeter say the fecal immunochemical test (FIT) can help identify cancers affecting the bowel, colon, or rectum – potentially saving lives.

Nearly 4,000 participants took the test, which costs under $6 and can detect traces of hidden blood in stool samples. The test was given to anyone with low-risk symptoms of colorectal cancer. Although these can be caused by bowel cancer, some symptoms could also come from other illnesses, stomach aches, or anemia.

Researchers say, until now, there hasn’t been an easy way to test people with low-risk symptoms of colorectal cancer.

“Our findings are very exciting – we show that this simple and inexpensive test performs exceptionally well in this group of patients with low-risk symptoms, to quickly and accurately tell us who is likely to not have colorectal cancer, and who should be referred for investigation,” study leader Dr. Sarah Bailey says in a media release.

“At a time when hospital services face a backlog as a result of COVID-19 measures, making this decision quickly can ensure the right people are investigated and treated as quickly as possible, which can help save lives. We know that FIT has accelerated interest in how FIT can be used in other patients, such as those with symptoms that have a higher risk of being colorectal cancer and we are now calling for FIT to be evaluated for use across the entire healthcare spectrum, not just in primary care, and in combination with other clinical markers of cancer such as blood test results.”

Spotting one of the deadliest cancers early

From June to December 2018, 3,890 patients over the age of 50 received the FIT. Of those, the test discovered blood in the feces of 618 patients. Forty-three of those positive tests received a diagnosis of colorectal cancer within 12 months. In the group testing negative, only eight eventually received a cancer diagnosis over the next year.

“The rapid and robust analysis has generated the evidence for doctors to use the FIT test with confidence,” Dr. Joe Mays of the Peninsula Cancer Alliance says.

“This led to a reduction in the expected rates of colonoscopy, and helped us build a business case for the ongoing commissioning of this service. Building confidence and familiarity with the test helped us to manage a crisis in endoscopy capacity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re now keen to evidence the performance of the test in higher risk populations.”

“FIT is already being used for people who don’t have symptoms in the bowel screening program. So it’s fascinating to see how this test may also be used in patients with low risk symptoms to identify who needs further investigation,” adds Cancer Research UK’s head of early diagnosis, Dr. Jodie Moffat.

“As with all tests, FIT isn’t perfect and some cases can be missed so it’s important that anyone whose symptoms persist, change or worsen contact their GP, even if they’ve recently had a negative FIT result.”

According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Officials estimate there will be around 150,000 new cases of colon or rectal cancer diagnosed in 2021.

The study appears in the British Journal of Cancer.

SWNS writer Chris Dyer contributed to this report.

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