What is a polyp?
Polyps are benign growths that grow on the lining of the colon and have the potential to turn into cancer. The purpose of a screening colonoscopy is to remove those polyps and therefore, prevent them from ever turning into colorectal cancer.
What do polyps look like?
They vary in size from less than a quarter of an inch to several inches in diameter. They look like small bumps that grow in the colon and sometimes can grow on a “stalk” that looks like a mushroom. Sometimes, polyps can be flat and very hard to see. People can have several polyps scattered in different parts of the colon. Some polyps can contain cancer, although the vast majority of polyps do not. Larger polyps are more likely to become cancerous than smaller ones.
How common are polyps?
Polyps typically become more common with age. For example, more than 40% of persons over 50 have precancerous polyps in the colon. Smoking, obesity, diabetes, and inadequate exercise are risk factors for polyps, but many people with none of these risk factors have precancerous polyps in the colon. There are genetic risk factors for developing polyps as well.
What are risk factors for polyps?
- AGE - The biggest risk of being older than age 50.
- FAMILY HISTORY - A family history of colorectal cancer or polyps increases your risk of polyps
- HAVING PAST POLYPS - Having a history of polyps puts you at greater risk of developing more.
- LIFESTYLE - Smoking, obesity and diabetes puts you at even greater risk for polyps
I don’t have a family history of colon cancer and I am feeling fine! Why do I need to get screened for polyps.
Even if nobody in your family has colon cancer or polyps, you are still at risk! Even if you feel fine! Polyps are small and do not cause symptoms. Some large ones can cause bleeding in the stool. However, the best tool we have is colonoscopy, which can take polyps out before they cause problems like cancer down the road.
Ok, so you found some polyps. Now, how do you remove them?
Most polyps can be removed during routine colonoscopy. We do have tools that look like lassos that help us remove them. Sometimes, larger or flat polyps need to have special, more advanced techniques to remove them and we have special tools that help us to safely take them out.
What do you do with the polyps when you’ve removed them?
We send them to another doctor called a pathologist. This doctor looks at the tiny cells of the polyp under the microscope. They can tell us whether the polyp is benign or if it has some pre-cancerous cells that have the potential to turn into colon cancer down the road. We can usually have the results within a week and based on that, we let you know when to return for a repeat colonoscopy. Usually, you’ll need another one in three years or five years based on the number and type of polyps.