If you’ve ever had a colonoscopy to screen for colon cancer, your doctor may have told you that she found polyps. These small clumps of cells that form on your colon lining are usually harmless. But some of them can lead to colon cancer.
The most common types of colon polyps doctors remove are a type called tubular adenoma. It can become cancerous, and that danger goes up the bigger the polyps get.
How Polyps Form
Sometimes cells in your body grow out of control, a process called mutation. Some of the abnormal cells can turn into polyps and other types of tumors. Tubular adenomas are often small -- less than 1/2 inch. Just like the name, they grow in a tube shape.
You can get a less common but more serious type of polyps called villous adenomas. Instead of round or oval, they look shaggy, like a cauliflower. Some polyps combine the two growth patterns, and they’re called tubulovillous adenomas.
Who Gets Polyps
Almost all colon cancer starts out as polyps. They can grow slowly, over a decade or more. If you have tubular adenomas, they have about 4%-5% chance of becoming cancerous. The odds that villous adenomas will turn out to be dangerous are several times higher.
You’re more likely to get tubular adenomas if you are:
- 50 or older
- From a family with history of colon polyps
- A couch potato
You may not know you have tubular adenomas until your doctor finds them during a colonoscopy. But you may notice:
- Bleeding in your bottom
- Mucus in your poop
- Frequent diarrhea or constipation
- Belly cramps
- Anemia, from losing blood in your poop
During a colonoscopy, your doctor inserts a long, flexible tube with a lens into your rectum and slowly threads it into your colon. She can see the images on a video monitor. Any tubular adenomas will show up as a lump sticking out from the lining of your colon.
Your doctor will snip off the polyp or loop a wire around it and burn it off with electric current. You’ll be asleep during the procedure, so you won’t feel any pain.
Your doctor will send the polyp to a lab. A pathologist will check it under a microscope to see how much the sample looks like cancer.
No matter what the lab results say, the important thing is that all the polyps are out.
If you’ve had tubular or any other types of adenomas, you’ll need to have a follow-up colonoscopy to make sure they don’t return. Usually, you’ll need a repeat procedure every 3-5 years. But you may need one sooner if you had a lot of polyps, if they were big, or if your doctor was not able to remove them all.
If you have a history of polyps in your colon, you’re more likely to get colon cancer. Screening is your best way to prevent that. Doctors generally recommend getting your first colonoscopy at age 50. You may need to start at age 40 or earlier if someone in your family has had serious polyps or colon cancer.
You also can take these steps to help avoid both colon polyps and colon cancer:
- Eat less fat and more vegetables, fresh fruits, and other high-fiber foods
- Keep your weight in a healthy range
- Avoid smoking and too much alcohol
- Talk to your doctors about pros and cons of taking an aspirin or another nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (such as ibuprofen) regularly. It may help protect again colon cancer