What you need to know: March is colorectal cancer awareness month

FIT Staff
Mar 5, 2014

Polyps could point to colon cancer

Removing these usually benign growths can reduce your chances of developing colon cancer.

Chances are you won't even know they're there, but if you have polyps in your colon, they almost always need to come out.

That's because polyps, though usually harmless, can develop into colorectal cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute,  this is the second leading cancer killer in the United States.

What are polyps?

Polyps are growths that start in the colon's lining and extend into the bowel cavity. Sometimes they look like a mushroom growing on a stalk. Other times they appear as a small bump on the colon lining. Polyps vary in size from less than a quarter of an inch to several inches in diameter.

There are two kinds of polyps: hyperplastic polyps, which do not become cancerous, and adenomas, which could turn into cancer.

While adenomas are thought to be the origin of almost all colon cancers, most of these growths will never become cancerous.  Still, since there's no way to tell which ones might develop into cancer, doctors generally recommend removing and testing all polyps.

Who's likely to get polyps?

Anyone can get polyps. Scientists don't yet know what causes them, though they are most common among people older than 50.

You're more likely to develop polyps if you or someone in your family has had them before or if you eat lots of fatty foods, smoke, weigh too much or don't exercise regularly.

While most polyps cause no symptoms, larger ones — the ones more likely to be or become cancerous — might cause blood in the stool, constipation or diarrhea that lasts more than a week.

Screening for polyps

Since polyps don't always signal their presence, the best way to detect them early — when they're less likely to be cancerous — is through regular screening. Even if polyps are cancerous, regular screening can reveal them at a stage when the disease is easiest to treat.

Screening tests include:

Digital rectal exam. Your doctor uses a gloved finger to check the rectum for any abnormalities. One of the other tests listed below may also be needed.

Barium enema. Barium is a liquid that helps polyps in the large intestine stand out on X-rays. If polyps are found, they can be removed during a separate procedure.

Sigmoidoscopy. A thin, flexible tube with a light and video camera on the end is inserted into the rectum so the doctor can look for polyps in the bottom one-third of the large intestine.

Colonoscopy. Similar to a sigmoidoscopy, but this procedure allows the doctor to look at the entire large intestine. This test usually requires some sedation but not a hospital stay.

If you have symptoms, are 50 years old or older, or someone in your family has had polyps, talk to your doctor about screening.