Colon Polyps and Cancer

Colon Polyps and Cancer

Why should I be concerned about polyps and colon cancer?

Cancer of the colon and rectum is a major health problem in the United States.  It ranks second as a cause of death from cancer.  Colorectal cancer is treatable, but more importantly, it is one of the most preventable forms of cancer.  Finding and removing polyps before they have a chance to become malignant is incredibly effective in avoiding colorectal cancer.

What is a colon polyp?

A polyp is a growth on the lining of the colon.  They look like tiny pink grapes.  Polyps are benign, but if left unattended, they can turn into cancers over time.  The larger the polyp and the longer it has been present, the greater the risk it contains cancer cells.

How does a colon polyp become a colorectal cancer?

As the polyp enlarges, genetic mutations accumulate within the polyp tissue.  There is now strong medical evidence suggesting some people inherit abnormal genes that don’t know when to turn “off.”  This leads to overactive growth within the polyp and allows an accelerated course to cancer.  There are likely other factors contributing to the transformation from polyp to cancer, including age, diet, chronic inflammatory conditions (like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease), lack of ingested fiber, and other forms of cancer (such as breast or ovarian).

How do I know if I have colon polyps?

Early detection and removal of colon polyps is key to prevention of colon cancer because polyps seldom cause symptoms in their earliest stages.  The only way to know if you have them is to have an examination of the colon.  Currently, the best examination of the colon is colonoscopy, where a flexible, lighted tube with a camera is inserted into the colon.  If polyps are identified, they are removed immediately.  Future methods of detection may include a blood genetic test or CT colography (virtual colonoscopy).

Colon polyp removal is quick and painless.  Your physician has a variety of means by which to remove polyps including a wire lasso called a snare that snips the polyp off at its base, or a biopsy forceps, which is used on small polyps.

When should I have my first colonoscopy?

If you are of average risk, which means no one else in the family has colon polyps or colorectal cancer, your first colonoscopy should be at age 50.  If immediate family members have had a colorectal cancer, you should start colonoscopy at age 40 or at ten years younger than the age your family member was diagnosed.  Colonoscopy should be considered in patients who have regular gastrointestinal complaints.  Your physician can help you to determine when your first colonoscopy is indicated.

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