Follow-up strategies for patients treated for non-metastatic colorectal cancer

For patients with colorectal cancer treated with curative intent, intensive follow up is associated with improved all-cause survival. However, from the randomised trials completed and reported to date, it is not clear what constitutes the optimal follow-up regimen.
There is little information available about the harms and costs associated with follow up in this setting.
Ongoing and proposed trials will address issues of quality of life, harms and costs, and clarify the optimum follow-up programme.
Consumer needs and concerns with respect to the value of follow up require further research.

Authors' conclusions: 

The results of our review suggest that there is an overall survival benefit for intensifying the follow up of patients after curative surgery for colorectal cancer. Because of the wide variation in the follow-up programmes used in the included studies it is not possible to infer from the data the best combination and frequency of clinic (or family practice) visits, blood tests, endoscopic procedures and radiological investigations to maximise the outcomes for these patients. Nor is it possible to estimate the potential harms or costs of intensifying follow up for these patients in order to adopt a cost-effective approach in this clinical area. Large clinical trials underway or about to commence are likely to contribute valuable further information to clarify these areas of clinical uncertainty.

Read the full abstract...

It is common clinical practice to follow patients with colorectal cancer (CRC) for several years following their definitive surgery and/or adjuvant therapy. Despite this widespread practice there is considerable controversy about how often patients should be seen, what tests should be performed and whether these varying strategies have any significant impact on patient outcomes.


To review the available evidence concerning the benefits of intensive follow up of colorectal cancer patients with respect to survival. Secondary endpoints include time to diagnosis of recurrence, quality of life and the harms and costs of surveillance and investigations.

Search strategy: 

Relevant trials were identified by electronic searches of MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, CANCERLIT, Cochrane Controlled Trials Register, Science Citation Index, conference proceedings, trial registers, reference lists and contact with experts in the field.

Selection criteria: 

Only randomised controlled trials comparing different follow-up strategies for patients with non-metastatic CRC treated with curative intent were included.

Data collection and analysis: 

Trial eligibility and methodological quality were assessed independently by the three authors.

Main results: 

Eight studies were included in this update of the review. There was evidence that an overall survival benefit at five years exists for patients undergoing more intensive follow up OR was 0.73 (95% CI 0.59 to 0.91); and RD -0.06 (95% CI -0.11 to -0.02). The absolute number of recurrences was similar; OR was 0.91 (95% CI 0.75 to 1.10); and RD -0.02 (95% CI -0.06 to 0.02) and although the weighted mean difference for the time to recurrence was significantly reduced by -6.75 (95% CI -11.06 to -2.44) there was significant heterogeneity between the studies. Analyses demonstrated a mortality benefit for performing more tests versus fewer tests OR was 0.64 (95% CI 0.49 to 0.85), and RD -0.09 (95%CI -0.14 to -0.03) and liver imaging versus no liver imaging OR was 0.64 (95% CI 0.49 to 0.85), and RD -0.09 (95%CI -0.14 to -0.03). There were significantly more curative surgical procedures attempted in the intensively followed arm: OR 2.41(95% CI 1.63 to 3.54), RD 0.06 (95%CI 0.04 to 0.09). No useful data on quality of life, harms or cost-effectiveness were available for further analysis.