An effective and timely examination method for colorectal cancer has remained a gerontologist's dream for many years. A method such as a breath test, similar to a breathalyser test for drinking and driving, may make it easier to diagnose colon cancer, according to a new study in the British Journal of Surgery.

The authors recruited 78 people for their study, of whom 37 had colon cancer and 41 were "healthy controls". Researchers found that those with colorectal cancer had a distinct pattern of chemicals that were linked to tumor activity in their breath.

The investigators collected the exhaled breath in an inert bag from all study participants. They then analyzed the breath samples using a statistical model, and correctly picked out the colon cancer patients 76 percent of the time.

Dr. Donato Altomare and his research team from the University Aldo Moro in Bari, Italy examined the feasibility of a breath test. They found 15 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that differed clearly between the two groups.

This is just one small step in attempting to create a breath test to identify colon cancer. However, it is too early to know if such a screening test would be workable in the real world, or if false positives are a risk.

Another question brought up by the authors was whether breath tests could recognize people with colon polyps.

The authors point out that there is work left to be done, and it is still unclear which breath chemicals should be evaluated or what specific statistical method is most accurate for eliminating cases of colon cancer.

The next step is to test this screening process further in a clinical trial setting. If in the future, it can be used for patients, it will eliminate much pain and discomfort associated with current screening processes.

Current Screening Methods for Colorectal Cancer

  • Colonoscopy: doctors use a long, slender and flexible tube attached to a video camera and monitor to examine the colon and rectum. Polyps that are found may be removed during this procedure or biopsies may be taken.
  • Blood Stool Test: a patient brings a stool sample in to their doctor who then sends it to a laboratory to be examined for blood. These tests are not always 100 percent accurate because the presence of cancer does not always cause blood in the stool. Also, blood in the stool may be caused by other conditions, such as hemorrhoids.
  • Barium enema X-ray: barium is a contrast dye injected into a person's bowel in an enema form so that it shows up on an X-ray. A clear image of a small part of the small intestine, the colon and rectum is visible. If something abnormal is detected, the next step is a colonoscopy.
  • What is Colorectal Cancer?

    Colorectal cancer can be found in the form of a lump, tumor or growth in the colon or rectum. The colon soaks up lots of water as well as nutrients from undigested food as it moves through the body. The rectum is located at the end of the colon and holds feces until they are ready to leave the body.

    According to the World Health Organization, colorectal cancer is the second most common cancer, after lung cancer. Many patients not diagnosed until they are at an advanced stage of this disease (around 40 percent).

    Symptoms of colorectal cancer include:
    • Diarrhea
    • Going to the bathroom frequently
    • Pain in the abdomen
    • Blood in feces
    • Feeling of fullness in the abdomen
    • Bloating
    Written by Kelly Fitzgerald