Health A to Z

Polyps

Polyps are raised or flat growths on the surface of the colon.

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Luckily, colorectal polyps are usually not cancerous but over time, some types of polyps, which are called adenomatous polyps may develop into colon cancer, while hyperplastic polyps usually do not become cancerous.

Causes Polyps are more common as we age. Polyps that are larger than one centimeter are more likely to carry cancer risk than smaller polyps. You’re also more at risk for cancer if you have a family history of polyps or colon cancer or a kind of polyp called a villous adenoma. Women who had uterine or ovarian cancer before age 50 may also be at increased risk for polyps.

Symptoms You may have one polyp or many. They usually don’t cause symptoms, but you may experience pain in the abdomen, constipation or diarrhea, bloody stools or bleeding in the rectum.

Diagnosis/tests If you have symptoms, your doctor may perform a rectal examination but that may not confirm the presence of polyps. She may order other tests, such as a barium enema, where the rectum is filled with a liquid for an X-ray; a colonoscopy, a tube with a camera attached that is used to examine the length of the colon, or a sigmoidoscopy, a tube inserted into the rectum to examine the lower bowel.

Treatment Adenomatous colorectal polyps can become cancerous so they are usually removed, often during the colonoscopy procedure. When polyps are removed, patients have a excellent prognosis. If they are left behind they can become cancerous over time. Your doctor may recommend a follow-up colonoscopy after the polyps removal in three to five years to make sure the polyps haven’t returned.

Prevention It is possible to lower your risk of developing polyps by not smoking and avoiding excessive alcohol intake. Eating a low-fat, high-fibre diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables; maintaining a healthy body weight and exercising regularly is also helpful. Getting a colonoscopy after age 50 (earlier if you have a family history) helps prevent colon cancer since it can catch polyps early before they become cancerous.

Outside resources
Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada
What you need to know about Colon Polyps
Colon Cancer Canada