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Preventing Polyps

Under­stand­ing what caus­es colon polyps and what you can do to pre­vent them

Col­orec­tal can­cer is one of the most com­mon can­cers affect­ing both men and women in the Unit­ed States today. In fact, accord­ing to the Amer­i­can Can­cer Soci­ety (ACS), near­ly one in 22 men and one in 24 women are diag­nosed with col­orec­tal can­cer over the course of their life­time. The good news is that col­orec­tal can­cer is one of the few pre­ventable forms of can­cer. Com­plet­ing a diag­nos­tic screen­ing, such as a colonoscopy, is your best defense. A colonoscopy allows your gas­troen­terol­o­gist to iden­ti­fy and remove any abnor­mal growths, called polyps, found in your large intes­tine. This is an effec­tive way to pre­vent col­orec­tal can­cer because in many cas­es, the polyps are found and removed before they have had the chance to devel­op into can­cer. Addi­tion­al­ly, if the polyp has already become can­cer­ous but is removed dur­ing its ear­ly stages, it is much eas­i­er to treat.

Tak­ing steps to pre­vent, iden­ti­fy and remove polyps is an impor­tant part of main­tain­ing your diges­tive health and pre­vent­ing col­orec­tal can­cer. Board-cer­ti­fied gas­troen­terol­o­gist, Kaitlin Wan­ta, DO, explains what a polyp is, why they form and tips to pre­vent them.

A polyp is a growth that forms on the lin­ing of your colon (also referred to as your large intes­tine). Nor­mal­ly, as new cells are need­ed to per­form essen­tial body func­tions, the cells in your body will grow and divide. In some cas­es, muta­tions in cer­tain genes cause cells to divide even when new ones aren’t need­ed. In the colon and rec­tum, these addi­tion­al cells can accu­mu­late form­ing polyps along the lin­ing of your large intes­tine. Some polyps are raised and shaped like a mush­room while oth­ers can look like small bumps that rest flat against your intesti­nal wall. Ini­tial­ly, most polyps are harm­less but over time some can devel­op into cancer.

There are sev­er­al dif­fer­ent types of polyps and some are more like­ly to progress into can­cer than oth­ers. Cer­tain chron­ic inflam­ma­to­ry dis­eases such as ulcer­a­tive col­i­tis or Crohn’s dis­ease can cause polyps to devel­op. These polyps may be relat­ed to chron­ic inflam­ma­tion that may be harm­less, although in some cas­es they may expe­ri­ence pre­can­cer­ous changes over time. Oth­er types such as ade­no­mas (which are the most com­mon) and ser­rat­ed polyps, are more like­ly to become can­cer­ous. The size of the polyp and its loca­tion can also play a role in whether or not a polyp will become can­cer­ous. In gen­er­al the larg­er the polyp’s size the greater your risk.

Polyps are com­mon and any­one can devel­op them. In fact, between 20 and 30 per­cent of adults will form polyps over the course of their lifetime. 

Cer­tain fac­tors can increase your risk of devel­op­ing a polyp including:

Age

You are over the age of 50.

Fam­i­ly History

You have fam­i­ly mem­bers, espe­cial­ly first-degree rel­a­tives (par­ents or sib­lings), who have had polyps or cer­tain hered­i­tary dis­or­ders such as Lynch syn­drome, Gard­ner’s syn­drome or ser­rat­ed poly­po­sis syndrome.

Smok­ing

You cur­rent­ly (or pre­vi­ous­ly) smoked tobac­co products.

Weight

You are over­weight or obese, espe­cial­ly if you car­ry extra weight in your mid-section.

Most polyps don’t cause notice­able symp­toms so it is impor­tant to com­plete a colonoscopy to detect these abnor­mal growths as soon as pos­si­ble. In some cas­es, polyps can cause symp­toms including:

Bleed­ing

Rec­tal bleed­ing may indi­cate the pres­ence of colon polyps or can be a sign of oth­er con­di­tions like hem­or­rhoids. Alert your pri­ma­ry care physi­cian if you expe­ri­ence rec­tal bleed­ing to deter­mine its cause.

Chang­ing stool color

Blood with­in your diges­tive tract or rec­tum can appear as red streaks in your stool or can make stools appear dark­er or black. A change in col­or does­n’t always mean there is a prob­lem and may sim­ply be caused by the foods and med­ica­tions you con­sume. Your physi­cian can help you pin­point the cause of the col­or change.

Dif­fer­ent bow­el habits

If you expe­ri­ence changes in your bow­el habits that last longer than a week, alert your physician.

Iron defi­cien­cy

If you have a polyp that has begun to bleed, you may devel­op an iron defi­cien­cy (ane­mia) over time. This is because pro­longed bleed­ing depletes the iron need­ed for your red blood cells to car­ry oxy­gen through­out your body, cre­at­ing a defi­cien­cy that can leave you feel­ing tired or short of breath.

Pain

Larg­er polyps may begin to obstruct your bow­el, caus­ing pain or cramp­ing in your abdomen.

If a polyp is sus­pect­ed, your gas­troen­terol­o­gist will per­form a diag­nos­tic exam of your large intes­tine which may include a: 

Colonoscopy

Your gas­troen­terol­o­gist will use a long, thin tube with a cam­era and light attached so that they can view your colon and look for any polyps that may have formed. A colonoscopy is the most thor­ough and effec­tive exam, as it allows your doc­tor to view all the areas with­in your colon where can­cers may grow.

Dig­i­tal rec­tal exam 

Your physi­cian will man­u­al­ly exam­ine your rec­tum for abnor­mal­i­ties that may be present with­in your rec­tum and a small por­tion of your bow­els. Depend­ing on the out­come of your exam, your gas­troen­terol­o­gist may rec­om­mend com­plet­ing a colonoscopy in order to view your entire colon.

Fecal occult blood test 

You will sub­mit a sam­ple of your stool to check for small amounts of blood which can be a sign of polyps. If blood is detect­ed, your physi­cian will like­ly rec­om­mend you com­plete addi­tion­al test­ing to deter­mine the source of the blood.

Sig­moi­doscopy

Sim­i­lar to a colonoscopy, your gas­troen­terol­o­gist will use a thin tube, light and cam­era to exam­ine a por­tion of the colon. A sig­moi­doscopy uti­lizes a short­er tube than the one used in a colonoscopy, which reach­es only the low­er por­tion of your colon. 

If a polyp is dis­cov­ered, your gas­troen­terol­o­gist will remove it and send it to a pathol­o­gist for addi­tion­al test­ing. The pathol­o­gist will deter­mine if the polyp is a:

  • Hyper­plas­tic polyp — which is not cancerous
  • Ade­no­ma­tous or ser­rat­ed polyp — which is not cur­rent­ly can­cer­ous, but can become can­cer if it’s not removed
  • Malig­nant polyp — which is cancerous

You can sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce your risk of devel­op­ing colon polyps and col­orec­tal can­cer by stay­ing up-to-date on can­cer screen­ings like colono­scopies. If a pre-can­cer­ous polyp is not removed, it will con­tin­ue to grow overtime.

Cer­tain lifestyle fac­tors can also reduce your risk of devel­op­ing polyps including:

Eat­ing a bal­anced diet 

Enjoy a well-bal­anced diet rich in fiber by select­ing a vari­ety of fruits, veg­eta­bles and whole grains and lim­it­ing your intake of fats, processed foods and red meat.

Stay­ing active 

Phys­i­cal activ­i­ty can help sup­port your diges­tive sys­tem as well as main­tain a healthy weight. Strive for 30 min­utes of mod­er­ate activ­i­ty each day.

Know­ing your risk 

Talk to your pri­ma­ry care physi­cian about your per­son­al and fam­i­ly health his­to­ry. This can help to deter­mine your risk of devel­op­ing a vari­ety of health con­di­tions includ­ing col­orec­tal can­cer. If you are at an increased risk, your physi­cian may rec­om­mend you start screen­ing ear­li­er or more frequently.

Lim­it­ing your alco­hol consumption 

Alco­hol con­sump­tion has been linked to an increased risk of many health con­di­tions and can­cers includ­ing col­orec­tal can­cer. To reduce your risk, avoid exces­sive alco­hol con­sump­tion, lim­it­ing your intake to two drinks or less per day for men, or one drink per day or less for women.

Stop­ping smoking 

Tobac­co prod­ucts con­tain sev­er­al harm­ful chem­i­cals that not only dam­age your lungs, but over time, can also lead to cell muta­tions that can cause can­cer. If you smoke, quit­ting has many imme­di­ate and long-last­ing health ben­e­fits includ­ing low­er­ing your risk of col­orec­tal (and many oth­er types) cancers. 

Tak­ing vitamins

Some research has shown that hav­ing inad­e­quate vit­a­min D lev­els may increase your risk of col­orec­tal can­cer. Be sure to com­plete your annu­al blood­work to mon­i­tor your vit­a­min lev­els. If your vit­a­min D is low­er than 20 ng/​ML, talk to your physi­cian about what steps you can take (includ­ing vit­a­min sup­ple­ments) to raise it.

While you may not be able to pre­vent a polyp from form­ing entire­ly, there are sev­er­al ways you can reduce your risk. Addi­tion­al­ly, because many polyps and ear­ly-stage col­orec­tal can­cer don’t cause notice­able symp­toms, it is impor­tant to stay up-to-date on pre­ven­tive screen­ings, like a colonoscopy. Ear­ly detec­tion and prompt treat­ment is your best defense against col­orec­tal can­cer. You can sched­ule an appoint­ment with one of our gas­troen­terol­o­gists online or by call­ing 6307172600.

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