Colon cancer, or colorectal cancer, is common in the United States. It affects both men and women, and the American Cancer Society estimates over 140,000 men and women will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in the U.S. in 2018.
The culprits behind most colon cancers are polyps. Polyps are tiny clusters of cells that may form in the rectum or colon. Many polyps are benign, or harmless. But some polyps may be cancerous, and some benign polyps may become cancerous over time. Keep reading to learn about what causes colon polyps, what symptoms to look out for, and how colon polyps are treated.
What Causes Colon Polyps?
Colon polyps can form when there is an overgrowth, or unregulated growth, of healthy cells. When cells grow and divide in an unregulated manner, they can form into small clumps of cells, or polyps. Polyps can form in anyone at any time but there are a few risk factors that make some people more likely to develop colon polyps than others.
- Age 50 or older
- Personal history of inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- Family history of colon polyps
- Tobacco use
- Moderate to heavy alcohol use
- Being overweight or obese
- Race: African Americans have an increased risk of colon cancer
- Type 2 diabetes
Types of Colon Polyps
There are two types of polyps: non-neoplastic and neoplastic.
Non-neoplastic polyps: These include inflammatory polyps and hyperplastic polyps. These are the most common types of polyps, and they generally do not become cancerous.
Neoplastic polyps: These types of polyps have a higher risk of becoming cancerous and are often considered precancerous when found. Neoplastic polyps include adenomatous polyps, or adenomas.
Colon Polyp Symptoms
Colon polyps often do not present with any symptoms. This is why routine screenings and early screenings for those with high risk factors are critical to finding and treating polyps before they can become cancerous. Screening means performing tests to check for polyps or colon cancer before symptoms have even presented. When symptoms do occur, they typically present the same way in men and in women.
Treating Colon Polyps
Treatment for colon polyps usually consists of removing the polyps. Polyps are typically removed during a colonoscopy unless they are too large. In those cases, surgery may be necessary to remove the large polyps. In very rare cases, portions of the rectum and colon may need to be removed. Cases like this are extremely unusual and are generally due to an inherited syndrome that was passed down through family genetics.
If the polyps removed were found to be cancerous, then additional treatment may be necessary. Treatments include radiation and chemotherapy to ensure that any cancer cells left behind have been destroyed.
Colon polyps discovered during routine screenings are usually the first sign of colon cancer or pre-cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends that those at an average risk for colon cancer begin regular screenings at age 45. Anyone with any risk factors for polyps or colon cancer should speak with his or her physician about an appropriate age to begin colon cancer screening. Early detection and removal of polyps play a critical role in diagnosing and preventing colon cancer. If any symptoms of polyps begin, persist, or worsen, contact a physician right away to discuss screening and treatment options.