Diseases & Conditions
The colon, the lower part of the digestive system, processes waste products and prepares feces (stool) for elimination (a bowel movement). The inner surface of the colon can have abnormal growths, both benign and malignant (cancer). Benign growths are called polyps or adenomas. Polyps, if left undetected, can become cancerous, although not all polyps will. Colon polyps usually do not cause symptoms, so persons with polyps do not know they have them until found during a colonoscopy (see below) or other testing. If precancerous polyps are detected and removed, many cancers can be prevented. Doctors who specialize in treatment of digestive diseases, including colon polyps and colon cancer, are called gastroenterologists. Because colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in developed nations, it is important to screen as many individuals as possible for the presence of colon polyps and colon cancer.
Family history of colon polyps or colon cancer
Inactivity and high-fat diets have been linked to higher risks of having colon cancer.
Inflammatory bowel diseases (ulcerative colitis and Crohn disease)
Ashkenazi Jewish persons (of Eastern European origin) have a higher incidence of colon cancer than other ethnic groups.
Polyps can be removed during colonoscopy—an outpatient procedure where a lighted tube is passed through the anus, into the rectum (lowest part of the colon), and into the colon, allowing the doctor to examine the inner surface of the colon for irregularities, polyps, or cancerous lesions. The removed polyps are sent to a pathologist who looks for the presence of cancer within the polyp. If cancer is present, your doctors will recommend a treatment plan based on the extent of the colon cancer and whether it has spread. Removal of the polyp during colonoscopy may be sufficient. Otherwise, treatment for colon cancer usually involves surgery, possibly followed by chemotherapy.
Colonoscopy, beginning at age 50 (or earlier if risk factors exist), is the only way to detect most colon polyps. Sigmoidoscopy examines only the lowest portion of the left side of the colon and is not a complete test for either polyps or colon cancer. Fecal occult blood testing can detect cancer only if it has bled.
Eat a low-fat, healthful diet rich in fiber, fruits, and vegetables.
Do not smoke.
Maintain a healthy weight.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
National Cancer Institute
American Cancer Society
American Gastroenterological Association
Source: JAMA. 2008;300(12):1480.