Virtual colonoscopy promises patients a noninvasive examination through advanced computer imaging. Healthcare providers hope the noninvasive option will prompt more people to have screenings to detect early-stage cancer.

by Marie Marchese

f01a.jpg (11733 bytes)There’s no way to “prettify” the facts: Colorectal cancer, including cancers of the colon and rectum, is the third most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, behind lung cancer. The American Cancer Society (ACS of Atlanta), in its Cancer Facts & Figures 2002, predicts an estimated 148,300 new cases and 56,600 deaths from the disease this year. At the same time, the society holds that approximately 90 percent of all colorectal cancers and death are preventable, based on improvements in nutrition, physical activity and timely screenings for early detection.

Yet try chatting up colorectal cancer screening at your next cocktail soiree. Watch as your guests, suddenly mute, cough and clear their throats — then reach for their keys. Talking about a barium enema or colonoscopy doesn’t elicit applause. It doesn’t arouse envy. Unlike good stock tips or real estate deals, it doesn’t generate respect or awe.

What it does evoke is a sense of unease that descends into dread and results in avoidance of the procedure.

But all that could change with the advent of CT colonography — more often called “virtual colonoscopy” — which promises patients a noninvasive examination of their colon via computer imaging.

Vendors with real products designed for virtual colonoscopy are quick to point out that people are more likely to be screened if they can go virtual. And the lead investigator in a study comparing virtual colonoscopy to the real thing — while acknowledging the technique’s shortcomings in detecting potentially precancerous small polyps — calls the technology an “excellent method” for detecting polyps considered “clinically significant” and suggests the procedure may prove valuable for some patients.

Please refer to the March 2002 issue for the complete story. For information on article reprints, contact Martin St. Denis