As the third-leading cause of U.S. cancer deaths, colorectal cancer results from carcinogenic formations in the inner lining of the colon — one of the most important parts of the digestive system. So what does colon cancer have to do with colorectal polyps?
Colon cancer is particularly insidious in that it can present itself asymptomatically in its early stages. However, regular screenings and a knowledge of one’s family medical history can help prevent and effectively treat the disease if detected early enough.
In the majority of cases, colorectal cancer develops from rectum tissue growths known as polyps. Although polyps are not always cancerous, they have the potential to develop into tumors. Adenomatous polyps, for instance, are considered precancerous, but often lead to colon cancer if left untreated. Inflammatory and hyperplastic polyps, on the other hand, carry less of a risk of developing into colon cancer. Large hyperplastic polyps, however, often require surgical removal.
Cell abnormalities, such as dysplasia, constitute another precancerous phase of the disease—often seen in those affected by Crohn’s disease, for instance.
Roughly 90% of those with colon cancer are over 50 years-old. Poor dietary habits, lack of regular exercise, genetic predisposition, obesity, unhealthy habits like smoking cigarettes and excessive alcohol consumption, as well as pre-existing inflammatory bowel diseases, all elevate one’s risk of developing colorectal cancer. Early detection of the disease is sometimes made difficult by the fact that symptoms are either non-existent or easily attributable to other relatively minor digestive problems. That is why regular screenings and doctor consultations are vital.
Early symptoms include abdominal pain, unexplained weight and appetite loss, blood in the stool, and irregular bowel activity.
Colonoscopies, one of the most common forms of screening, involves examining the colon and rectum and removing polyps if found. Special X-ray tests are done using a computed tomography scanner, and generally, represent a less invasive form of screening. Sigmoidoscopies examine the rectum and last part of the colon specifically, with any polyps found sent for a biopsy.
The detection of colorectal polyps usually requires their removal, followed by laboratory analysis to determine their type. Most colorectal polyps can be removed during colonoscopies, however, particularly large adenomas require surgery. In their early stages, surgical removal can effectively eliminate the cancer. However, more aggressive tactics are required at later stages, including radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and more advanced surgery.
Those over 50 are encouraged to undergo a colonoscopy every 10 years, or if symptoms develop. Flexible sigmoidoscopies are recommended every 5 years, and stool tests on an annual basis. Stool tests represent an easy method of examination as there are kits available that can be performed at home, testing for fecal occult (hidden) blood in the stool that may indicate the presence, or the risk of developing, carcinogenic tissue.
Knowing one’s family history is an effective way to help prevent the development of the disease. A genetic predisposition for polyps means regular screenings are vital, and should possibly be commenced even younger than 50.
Eating low-fat, high-fiber foods, like fruits and vegetables, as well as regular exercise, are other preventative measures. Additionally, research shows a correlation between nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, such as Aspirin, and a reduced risk of developing colorectal cancer.
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