Colon cancer is the second most common cause of cancer-related death. Cancer cells do not develop from normal cells in the colon in most cases, rather normal cells develop abnormal changes in them and become "adenomas". Adenomas are small growths called polyps in the colon. If these are detected early and removed, colon cancer does not develop. Once a polyp (adenoma) develops, it may take up to 10 years for it to grow and finally degenerate into a cancer, so there is sufficient time for polyps to be detected and removed. This is why it is so important to have: 1) yearly check of the stools for occult blood (blood which cannot be seen with the naked eye yet), and 2) a sigmoidoscopy (viewing with a small tube up into the colon) every three years once one is beyond the age of 50. Unfortunately, if colon cancer is not detected in the early stages, it spreads beyond the colon and adequate treatment is not effective to provide a cure. If a person is beyond the age of 50, he should see his doctor to have a sigmoidoscopic examination and his stool checked yearly for occult blood. If one has a family history of colon cancer, he should inform his doctor of this and screening should start earlier. A complete evaluation of the colon should be done. Symptoms, which occur in association with colon cancer can be abdominal pain, distention, constipation, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, and anemia (usually associated with fatigue and weakness).

How Your Colon Works

The Colon, also known as the large intestine or bowel, is a muscular tube approximately 5-6 feet long. Its job is to remove water from food and expel solid waste or stool through the rectum.

What Are Colon Polyps?

Polyps are an overgrowth of tissue lining the inner wall of the colon. These may be mushroom shaped (pendunculated) or flat (sessile). Small polyps are usually harmless but may contain abnormal cells that have the potential to grow and become cancerous. The larger the polyp the greater the risk of malignancy (Cancer).

What Causes Colon Polyps?

Since the cause of Colon Polyps is probably multiple, it is difficult to know how to prevent them. The following individuals are at a greater risk to develop polyps.

  • Age 40 and Over
  • First degree relative (mother, father, sister, brother, child) with history of colon polyps or colorectal cancer.

Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer is the second most deadly cancer and kills more people yearly than breast or prostate cancer. The good news - with proper screening, this disease can be prevented.

Key to Prevention - Removal of Polyps

Most polyps can be removed safely by colonoscopy before they become cancers. This exam can detect up to 97% of all polyps and cancers. After thorough cleansing of the colon, an outpatient exam is preformed with medication to make you sleepy and ease abdominal discomfort.

A flexible, lighted tube (endoscope) with a camera allows the physician to view the colon on a video screen. Polyps may be removed by a wire snare placed tightly around the base. Cautery is used as the polyp is cut off to prevent bleeding. All tissue retrieved is sent to the lab, for examination and to determine proper follow-up.

Colonoscopy Risks

Complications are rare but include:

  • Possible reaction to medication
  • Bleeding
  • Perforation (a tear or hole which requires surgery to repair)

Alternative Screening Exams

Though colonoscopy is considered the "Gold Standard" in diagnosis of colorectal cancer, some insurances may not cover this exam without symptoms (example - rectal bleeding). The American Cancer Society recommends the following screening options if colonoscopy is not an option.

At Age 50

Fecal Occult Blood Test Yearly with Sigmoidoscopy every 5 years (views approximately 1/3 of colon) or double Contrast Barium Enema every 5-10 years. If polyps are found by sigmoidoscopy or x-ray colonoscopy must be performed to remove them.

Colon Cancer Prevention

Screening is the best method to prevent colorectal cancer. In addition the following lifestyle changes are encouraged:

  • Eat more fiber
  • Eat less fat
  • Exercise regularly
  • Quit smoking
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Alcohol in moderation