How serious are polyps?
“Not all colon polyps are cancerous but all colon cancer starts as a polyp which is why everyone needs to know about them and be screened regularly for them,” says Dr Fola May, a gastroenterologist and associate professor of medicine, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the director of Fight Colorectal Cancer. “And colorectal cancer is the second-leading cancer killer of men and women combined.”
Yikes! OK, we’re listening… but what are polyps, exactly? Colon polyps are growths that occur on the inner lining of the large intestine (colon), or the rectum (which comprises the last 15 centimetres of the GI system before the body expels solid waste). Polyps vary in size and shape, ranging from small, flat bumps to larger, mushroom-shaped growths.
Polyps are quite common: It’s estimated that 15 per cent to 40 per cent of adults have them, and people who have them generally have more than one,” adds Dr May.
Polyps can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Only a percentage of polyps will become cancerous – and of those that do, they generally take years to turn cancerous.
One major problem? “Early polyps often look like a small pimple,” Dr Mays says – so small that if you had one, you almost certainly wouldn’t know it. “You will most likely not be able to feel symptoms or see signs of a polyp,” Dr May says. “Most polyps and early-stage colorectal cancers do not cause symptoms that you can see or feel.” The only way to diagnose and remove polyps is with a colonoscopy, which is why it’s important to start getting cancer screens regularly starting at age 45.
“Since it is difficult to tell during colonoscopy which polyps have the potential to become cancerous, the goal of the procedure is to remove them all,” she explains.
Types of colon polyps
There are the three types of polyps:
Adenomatous polyps: These are the most common type and the most likely to become cancer. They may be described as tubular, villous, or tubulovillous polyp, which are the different growth patterns of the polyp.
Hyperplastic polyp and inflammatory polyp: These are common but usually not cancerous. If yours is rather large, your doctor may recommend getting a colonoscopy more often than the standard every 10 years.
Sessile serrated polyps and traditional serrated adenomas: These have a higher risk of being cancerous. Sessile are broad and flat polyps, while serrated polyps have a “saw-tooth” appearance.
Symptoms of colon polyps
Dr May emphasises that most people experience no symptoms of polyps, especially at the early stages – but adds that as they grow larger, they may cause some symptoms. If you experience any of these symptoms they may indicate colon polyps, colorectal cancer, or some other gastrointestinal issue and they warrant a call to your doctor.