Do Colon Polyps Always Mean Cancer?

Colonoscopy, illustration
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Learning that you have polyps in your colon can be a frightening experience, but it does not always mean that you have colon cancer. A polyp is an abnormal growth within your colon, and although no one wants to have colon polyps, some types are not dangerous and may never turn into colon cancer. Having said that, when colorectal cancer screening guidelines are adhered to, most polyps are both diagnosed and removed during a colonoscopy so that they do not get the chance to turn cancerous over time.

Categorization of Polyps

These abnormal growths have many different descriptions, most of which are based on location and appearance. However, following your exam, there are only three descriptive words that you will likely hear: Cancerous, non-cancerous (benign), and pre-cancerous. Some other terms you may hear and read regarding colon polyps include:

  • Flat
  • Superficial
  • Raised
  • Sessile
  • Pedunculated
  • Adenomatous (Most commonly associated with colon cancer)
  • Superficial

Most sources agree that flat polyps, which may be difficult to detect (hence the need for a squeaky clean colon before your colonoscopy), are associated with an increased risk of turning cancerous.

Are There Symptoms of Polyps?

For the most part, you probably will not know that you have polyps in your intestine. They are almost always asymptomatic, meaning that you won't see or feel anything different within your body. Although symptoms of colon polyps are uncommon, they can include:

  • Blood on the toilet tissue when wiping (can also be caused by hemorrhoids)
  • Prolonged bowel movement irregularities, including constipation or diarrhea lasting longer than a week without a known cause (stomach virus, poor diet, medications)
  • Bright red blood in the stool

How Do You Know If You Have Polyps?

Polyps do not cause abdominal pain, weight loss, or any other ominous symptoms on their own.

This is why screening exams are the key to preventing colon cancer. The tests used to find polyps before they turn cancerous include:

  • Colonoscopy: Also used to remove polyps if they are found by other means.
  • Barium enema: Basically an x-ray of your colon that may show large growths or irregularities in the bowel.
  • Sigmoidoscopy: Will only detect polyps in the last portion of your colon, known as the sigmoid colon.
  • Fecal occult stool testing: Can detect the presence of microscopic amounts of blood in the stool, which may be contributed to polyp activity or cancer.

What Are the Most Dangerous Polyps?

Regardless of its type, any polyp bigger than one centimeter—about the width of a standardly sized paperclip—should be removed, according to the National Cancer Institute. Regardless of size, adenomatous polyps, which can be flat, raised or villous (leaf-like), are most commonly associated with colon cancer.

Decrease Your Risk

Studies to determine why certain people seem to develop polyps in the colon and other people do not are ongoing. However, we do know some factors that increase your risk of developing polyps, including a fatty diet, smoking, excessive alcohol use, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle.

If you are over 50 and have not been screened for colon cancer, make an appointment to talk to your doctor—especially if you have any of these known risk factors for polyps.

Sources

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