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The difference between colon polyps and colon cancer

Did you know most cases of colon cancer started as colon polyps? Colon polyps are small growths inside the large intestine. Sometimes, they can become cancerous, leading to colon cancer, the third-leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. Pratik Thaker, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine physician, shares more about colon polyps and how they relate to colon cancer.

What are colon polyps?

“Colon polyps are small growths found in the large intestines,” Dr. Thaker says. “They can range from a few millimeters to several centimeters in size and can be flat or raised.”

Most colon polyps aren’t cancerous or precancerous. However, most forms of colon cancer begin as colon polyps.

What causes colon polyps?

Your environment and genetics play a role in whether you develop colon polyps. The following factors can increase your risk:

  • High red meat consumption

  • High-fat diet

  • Low-fiber diet

  • Smoking

  • Obesity

  • Alcohol intake

Your genetics may also increase your risk of colon polyps and colon cancer.

Can colon polyps cause symptoms?

“Most colon polyps don’t cause symptoms, which is why we screen for them with colonoscopies,” Dr. Thaker says. “By the time people have symptoms, it has often progressed to colon cancer.”

In rare cases, a polyp may cause blood in the stool or a change in bowel habits.

When to get checked for colon polyps

The American Cancer Society recommends all people with an average risk of colon cancer begin colonoscopies at age 45 and continue them every 10 years through at least age 75 if they’re in good health and have a life expectancy of 10 years or more.

If you’re 76 to 85, talk with your healthcare provider to see if you should continue screenings. 

You may be at higher risk of colon cancer and need to begin colonoscopies sooner if you have:

  • A personal history of certain types of colon polyps, colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

  • A personal history of radiation therapy to the pelvic or abdominal area for previous cancer treatment.  

  • A family history of colon cancer.

  • A diagnosed or suspected hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome, such as Lynch syndrome or familial adenomatous polyposis.

Ask your healthcare provider what’s right for you.

Colonoscopies save lives

During a colonoscopy, your doctor will check your colon for polyps. If they find polyps, they’ll remove them and send them for testing to determine if they’re cancerous. Removing precancerous polyps can prevent them from growing into cancer.

“Getting a colonoscopy is the best way to prevent polyps from turning into colon cancer,” Dr. Thaker says. “Unlike ovarian or pancreatic cancer, we have a screening to detect colon cancer when it’s most treatable and curable.” 

Talk to your primary care provider or gastroenterologist about when you should begin colonoscopy screenings based on your risk factors.

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