Prevention of Colon Polyps and Cancer


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Since colon polyps can lead to cancer if not detected and removed, it makes sense to learn more about them and what you can do to prevent them. Your colon is located within your large intestine, near your appendix and lower abdomen on the right side. It begins at the end of the small intestine. It extends upwards in a wide loop towards the right side of your abdomen that lies adjacent to your liver. It then continues across your abdomen to the left side and extends downward where it connects with the rectum.

What is a Colon Polyp?

A polyp starts as a small growth of cells on the lining inside of your colon. Initially, a polyp can be as small as a pea or as large as a plum. Colon polyps typically begin as benign tumors, which means they are not yet cancerous. However, certain types of polyps have a greater likelihood of turning into cancer, including adenomatous polyps and serrated polyps. The larger the polyp grows, the higher the chance of it becoming cancerous.

The good news is that doctors can remove these types of tumors while they’re still benign during a procedure called a colonoscopy. They accomplish this by inserting a lighted, thin, and flexible tube into the colon.

Common Causes of Colon Polyps

The exact cause of these growths in the colon remains unknown, but medical researchers feel that genetics and diet play the biggest role in determining who will develop them. People with a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, with colon polyps or cancer should receive regular screenings. The risk is also higher for people whose second-degree relatives, including grandparents, aunts, and uncles, have a history of the disease. A diet high in fat and low in fiber can contribute to the forming of colon polyps as well.

Preventing Colon Polyps with a Healthy Diet

While medical researchers state genetic factors as the biggest influence in the development of colon polyps, you can’t control your DNA. Fortunately, you can control the types and amount of foods you eat. This also plays a big role in the prevention of colon polyps. Below are several types of foods and nutrients that we recommend to keep your colon healthy.

  • Calcium: Calcium enables your body to complete many chemical processes and it’s also essential to maintain bone strength. Another one of its important functions is the regulation of cell growth. When you don’t have enough calcium in your body, it can cause the cells in your colon to grow uncontrollably. Although researchers have not yet determined if adequate calcium helps to prevent cancer, adults should aim to consume 1,000 grams per day by drinking milk, eating dairy products such as cheese and yogurt, and eating leafy green vegetables, shellfish, and seafood.
  • Fiber: Dieticians typically recommend that adults consume at least 25 milligrams of fiber per day. This can help to improve stool regularity as well as other conditions related to gut health such as diverticulitis. Studies on fiber as a prevention for cancer remain inconclusive, but anything that improves gut health can only be a good thing.
  • Fruits and Vegetables: Carrots, oranges, peppers, strawberries, and other fruits and vegetables with a green, orange, red, or yellow color contain powerful antioxidants that can fight chemicals that cause cancer. Cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, brussel sprouts, and cabbage, also contain properties that can fight against cancer. A diet high in fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed grains can be especially beneficial for gut health and the prevention of colon polyps.
  • Folic acid and folate: Folic acid and folate can help to prevent the formation of polyps in people who regularly consume at least 400 micrograms per day. Foods containing high amounts of folic acid include rice, spaghetti, cornmeal, ramen, and flour. You can find large amount of folate, also known as Vitamin B9, in beans, lentils, asparagus, spinach, lettuce, avocado, broccoli, mango, oranges, and wheat bread.
  • Meats and saturated fats: Saturated fat contained in meat can be challenging for your body’s bile and digestive juices to process. That means the byproducts of the food can become lodged in your colon and lead to the growth of polyps. Research indicates that a meat-heavy diet can increase the risk of colon cancer as well as breast cancer. You don’t have to give up eating meat, but read nutrition labels carefully to know how much-saturated fat each meal contains.

Lifestyle Choices That Can Lower Your Colon Cancer Risk

An active lifestyle that includes at least 30 minutes of strenuous activity four or more times per week helps to reduce the risk of cancer and other serious illnesses. Quitting smoking or never picking up the habit at all reduces the risk as well. Regular use of aspirin and estrogen replacement for women can lower the likelihood of developing colon polyps, but you should not start using either product regularly before consulting with your doctor at Western Maryland Health System. That is because each has other side effects that can offset the benefit of reduced colon cancer risk.

Screenings options include:

  • Fecal Occult Blood Tests (FOBT)
  • Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT)
  • Cologuard–an at-home, noninvasive screening test
  • Colonoscopy–a procedure performed by a gastroenterologist to evaluate the inside of the colon

Symptoms of Colon Cancer: Local and Systemic

According to the National Cancer Institute, colon cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in the United States after breast and bladder cancer. Since people with colon cancer often exhibit no symptoms until the advanced stages, doctors recommend regular screening with a colonoscopy starting at age 50.  This allows them to detect and treat tumors of the colon as early as possible.

Local colon cancer affects the bathroom habits more than anything else. The most common symptoms associated with it include:

  • Bowel movements occur more frequently or not as often as usual
  • Bloating, cramps, gas pain, and other types of abdominal discomfort
  • Straining when having a bowel movement or being unable to produce one at all
  • A feeling of being unable to empty the bowels or stool that appears much thinner than usual
  • Frequent loose or watery stools
  • Experiencing both constipation and diarrhea on a regular basis
  • Presence of dark or bright red blood in the stool or black stool with a tar-like appearance

Systemic colon cancer means that the disease has progressed and the symptoms now affect the entire body. Typical systemic colon cancer symptoms include:

  • Reduced appetite
  • Losing weight without dieting
  • Jaundice, which appears as a yellow color on the skin or the white part of the eyes
  • Fatigue not relieved by rest
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Low red blood cell count

If you recognize symptoms from either of these lists, please schedule a screening appointment at Western Maryland Health System (WMHS) immediately. The sooner your doctor diagnoses the proper type of colon cancer, the sooner you can start treatment and have a better chance of recovery.

Stages of Colon Cancer

Stage 0 colon cancer

Stage 0 colon cancer, also called carcinoma in situ, means that cancer originated in the epithelial tissue and still remains there. At Stage 0, the typical treatment is a polypectomy to remove the tumor as well as a small amount of surrounding tissue. Larger tumors require a procedure called anastomosis to remove the diseased portion of the colon and reattachment of healthy tissue so you can maintain a functional digestive system.

Stage I colon cancer

Stage I colon cancer means that cancer has spread beyond its point of origination to the middle layers of the colon. Treatment is the same is at is for Stage 0. Aggressive surgery to remove all cancer from the colon can dramatically increase survival rates. The American Cancer Society states that 93 percent of patients survive past the five-year mark with Stage I colon cancer.

Stage II colon cancer

At Stage II, the tumors are larger and have extended through the colon’s muscular wall. However, there is no lymph node involvement. Surgery to remove cancer and the tissue surrounding it is standard procedure, although some doctors may also prescribe chemotherapy to prevent a future recurrence. The five-year survival rate for Stage II colon cancer is 78 percent.

Stage III colon cancer

A diagnosis of Stage III colon cancer means that cancer has gone beyond the colon into one or more lymph nodes. Stage IIIA indicates that the tumors are within the colon wall while Stage IIIB refers to tumors that have grown beyond the wall of the colon into one to four lymph nodes. Stage IIIC indicates the presence of five or more lymph nodes. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are the most common treatment options. The five-year survival rate for Stage III colon cancer is 64 percent and is higher for patients whose cancer has reached the fewest lymph nodes.

Stage IV colon cancer

Stage IV colon cancer indicates that cancer has spread to the lungs, liver, or other parts of the body. Tumors can grow to any size and sometimes affect the lymph nodes. As with stage III, treatment typically includes a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. At this stage, the five-year survival rate is just eight percent.

How to Reduce the Risk of Colon Cancer

The following steps can help control your risk:

  • Stop smoking
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat a diet that includes a wide range of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains because these foods include antioxidants, fiber, minerals, and vitamins
  • Get at least moderate exercise
  • Drink alcohol in moderation or consider quitting drinking altogether
  • Schedule regular colonoscopies after age 50

Your primary care provider at WMHS is happy to work with you to develop a plan to reduce your colon cancer risk.

Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing relating symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.