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When To Be Concerned About Polyps

Nobody wants a polyp. But the ease with which polyps can be detected makes colon cancer one of the easiest cancers to prevent.

Polyps aren’t unique to the colon. These small clumps of cells can form in many places, including your stomach, ear canal, bladder, nose and throat.

Inside your colon, polyps often are benign (or harmless) and amount to little more than a freckle. There are others, however, that can become cancerous if left alone.

Unfortunately, you can have one or more of these precancerous polyps and never realize it. Often, there are no symptoms. No bleeding. No constipation or changes in your bowel habits. No unexplained weight loss. And no pain.

What Causes Polyps?

Researchers still don’t know for certain what causes polyps to form. There are some relatively rare genetic disorders, including Lynch syndrome and familial adenomatous polyposis, that significantly increase your risk for polyps. But the simple truth is that they can develop out of the blue. Still, there are several risk factors associated with polyps and colon cancer. These include:

  • Family history: If you have a parent, sibling or child with polyps or colon cancer, then your risk goes up. If you have multiple affected family members, the risk is even greater. However, this may not be the result of genetics. It could be shared environmental factors instead.
  • Age: Colon polyps are more likely to be found in people over the age of 50. Cells in your body are dying and being replaced daily. Every time a dead cell is replaced, there is a tiny chance that the new cell could become cancerous due to an error in the body’s copying mechanism.
  • Obesity and lack of exercise: Researchers believe that people who are overweight or who do not exercise share a particular risk: fewer bowel movements. This could allow the lining of your colon to be exposed for longer periods of time to carcinogens found in some foods.
  • Inflammatory intestinal conditions: Ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease can increase your risk for cancer.
  • Smoking and alcohol: Drinking three or more alcoholic drinks a day can increase your risk for polyps. Adding smoking to the mix may further increase that risk.
  • Race: Black Americans have a higher risk of developing colon cancer.

How Is a Polyp Found?

Polyps are usually discovered as part of a diagnostic colonoscopy, a procedure used to examine your large intestine (colon) and rectum for signs of colon cancer. What happens next depends on the size, location and type of polyp.

Smaller polyps will often be removed during the colonoscopy. Larger polyps may require an additional procedure. And in some instances, the polyp may already have cancerous cells, which may call for removal of a section of the colon.

Sometimes during the colonoscopy, your doctor will be able to determine by appearance whether or not a polyp is precancerous. But often, the only way to know is to remove the tissue and send it to the lab for analysis. That’s why the default approach is to remove any polyp, if possible, during the procedure.

Following your colonoscopy, your doctor will discuss the results and anything you should be concerned about. This could include the discovery of precancerous (adenomatous) polyps, multiple polyps, large polyps and polyps with a history of bleeding.

You doctor may also suggest increasing the frequency of your colon cancer screenings.

Preventing Colon Cancer: Get Screened

Colonoscopy remains the gold standard for colon cancer screening. It is the most accurate tool available, and it allows your doctor to remove polyps encountered during the procedure. There are, however, other approved options, including a virtual colonoscopy and stool-based tests that require you to collect and submit a stool sample for analysis. The alternatives are less accurate, which means they need to be repeated more frequently – sometimes annually. Positive findings from these tests would then prompt the recommendation to undergo a colonoscopy.

A troubling trend in colon cancer is that it is one the few cancers that’s been on the rise in recent years. This is largely because of an increase in the number of younger people getting the disease. The trend is particularly unfortunate, considering that regular screenings are an extremely effective tool at preventing colon cancer.

This rise in cancer cases among younger adults prompted the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force to lower the initial colorectal cancer screening age to 45 from 50. If you have average risk factors, it’s recommended to get a follow-up screening every 10 years – if you are using a colonoscopy. The interval will be shorter if you have substantial risk factors (including a family history of colon cancer) or choose a different screening option.


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