Doctors recommend having regular colonoscopy screenings beginning at age 50, because being over that age is the greatest single risk factor for developing colon polyps. In fact, the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy estimates that one out of every four seniors has at least one polyp. And that excludes those who have other risk factors for developing colon cancer or other growths. This means about 25 percent of all people who undergo a colonoscopy will need to have polyps removed.
What Is A Colon Polyp?
Polyps are small, abnormal growths that occur on the lining of the colon. They can vary greatly in size from about a millimeter to several centimeters wide. While most polyps are not pre-cancerous or even have the potential to become cancerous, the connection between some types of polyps and colon cancer has been well-established.
Malignant growths in the colon is the third leading cause of cancer in this country, and the second leading cause of death from cancer as well, according to research published by the American College of Gastroenterology. By finding and removing colon polyps, the chances of those that can become cancerous doing so is greatly reduced. This is key in reducing the number of colon cancer diagnoses, ensuring prompt treatment and saving lives.
Are There Symptoms Of Colon Polyps?
In the vast majority of cases, colon polyps are discovered through a routine colonoscopy and there have been no previous symptoms. The polyp may bleed if it becomes irritated by anything passing through the digestive tract. Although this is rare, it can result in minor rectal bleeding or blood in the stool. This may prompt a trip to the doctor, who will recommend hemoccult testing on a stool sample and a colonoscopy.
In those who do not undergo routine screening, a large polyp may lead to a change in bowel habits, including diarrhea or severe constipation. This may also occur between scheduled colonoscopies in those with fast-developing polyps, although this is very rare.
According to current medical theories, it takes around a decade for a small polyp to develop into colon cancer, This is why most doctors recommend that patients have a colonoscopy every ten years. For those with a family history of colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease, colon screenings may be scheduled more frequently.
How Are Polyps Diagnosed?
Polyps are more likely to be discovered during a routine colonoscopy than in any other way. This screening is considered the “gold standard” for evaluating any issues with the lower gastrointestinal tract, because it can not only examine the entire colon, but it can also be used to remove tissue samples for further testing and remove entire polyps if necessary.
Because there is little risk in removing a polyp, and because of the proven link between some of these growths and the development of colon cancer, any polyps found during a colonoscopy are typically removed during the procedure. While larger polyps are more likely to contain precancerous or cancerous cells, it is often impossible to determine whether even a small polyp has a chance of becoming malignant in the future. All polyps removed are then sent to the lab for testing to ensure they contain only benign cells.
How Are Colon Polyps Treated?
In most cases, removal of the polyp is the only treatment that is required. The procedure, known as a polypectomy, is painless and requires no extra sedation in addition to what is given before the colonoscopy.
After the colonoscopy is completed, the polyps are examined under a microscope and undergo a histologic examination. During these lab tests, specially trained technicians will be able to determine if they contain cancer, have a potential to develop into malignant masses or if their characteristics indicate other polyps may form in the same area in the future.
A polypectomy is considered a routine part of a this type of screening, and does not usually complicate the outpatient procedure.
Although a colonoscopy can identify about 95 percent of all polyps, some polyps may be too large or dangerous to remove during the screening. In some cases, the growths will be biopsied to determine if they could be cancerous. Treatment of non-cancerous polyps may include endoscopic removal performed over several colonoscopies. Cancerous, precancerous or symptomatic polyps may require surgical removal.
Do I Need Further Follow-up?
Whether you will need further treatment after your polypectomy depends heavily on the lab results after the procedure. Most who have small, benign polyps removed only need to continue receiving colonoscopy screenings at the interval recommended by their doctor. Patients with polyps that are larger or have the possibility of becoming malignant will most likely need more frequent colonoscopies to keep an eye on future growths. This is also true for those who had a large number of polyps that required removal, because they are more likely to develop new polyps.
If precancerous or cancerous tissue is found, you may be referred to an oncologist for further testing or treatment, based on the findings. Most with precancerous polyps removed will not need treatment beyond the polyp removal procedure and regular screenings.