A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Colon cancer prevention starts with polyps

Graphic of cartoon intestine in pain - Colon polyps related to colon cancer

Colon polyps are the first sign that colon cancer is developing, so having a colonoscopy is the only way to prevent colon cancer.

Early detection of colon polyps is the only way to prevent colon cancer from forming.

Colon polyps are not cancer, but the first sign that colon cancer may be developing. A colon polyp can change to cancer in up to 10 years depending on various genetic and environmental factors.

Removing a colon polyp during a colonoscopy can prevent colon cancer from forming in 90 percent of cases according to Dr. Sabo Tanimu, a gastroenterologist with Marshfield Clinic.

Types of colon polyps

Colon polyps can vary in form with some being less or more likely to cause colon cancer:

  • Adenoma: There are several types of adenomas, but in most cases, these colon polyps can lead to cancer. If this type of colon polyp is found during your colonoscopy and all polyps are removed, you typically return for another colonoscopy in three to five years.
  • Hyperplastic: These polyps usually are benign and typically do not lead to cancer. Your colonoscopy would not be repeated for another 10 years if these are the only polyps found.

Finding colon polyps

While there are several ways to discover colon polyps, Tanimu said the best way is to have a colonoscopy.

Colonoscopies are still the gold standard option for identifying and removing colon polyps,” he said.

A new genetic test called Cologuard® uses a swab of your stool to detect DNA from colon polyps that have a predisposition for turning into cancer. Tanimu said this test is an option for people with average risk for colon cancer.

Cologuard is 90 percent effective at detecting colon polyps or early cancer.

“A colonoscopy gives us a higher reassurance for colon cancer detection and prevention,” Tanimu said.

A CT colonography, sigmoidoscopy or fecal-immunochemical test are other colon cancer screening options.

How to increase and lower your risk

“Many factors have been linked to developing colon polyps and cancer, but these are not as strong a factor as age, family history or inflammatory bowel diseases,” Tanimu said.

Excessive consumption of red meat, cigarette smoking, obesity, alcohol use and lack of physical activity also can lead to an increased risk of colon polyps.

Eating vegetables and high-fiber foods, taking vitamins that contain folic acid and taking aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, are thought to reduce the chance of developing colon polyps even after polyps are removed during a colonoscopy.

“These choices have been shown to decrease the likelihood of developing polyps and ultimately cancer,” Tanimu said.

It is the combination of genetic and environmental factors that affect how susceptible you are to getting colon polyps.

For more information about colon polyps, talk with your doctor.

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