Colorectal Polyps

What is a Polyp?

A colorectal polyp is an abnormal growth extending from the inner lining of the large bowel (colon or rectum). They are common with approximately half of all Australians developing a polyp during their lifetime. If polyps are left untreated for many years, a small percentage can turn into bowel cancer. Polyps usually do not cause symptoms.

Types of polyps

There are two main types of polyps. Adenomatous polyps can sometimes turn into bowel cancer after many years. Hyperplastic polyps do not carry a risk of developing into bowel cancer unless they are associated with a rare syndrome of multiple hyperplastic polyps.

Shape of polyps

Sessile polyps are flat polyps. These can be difficult to detect. Mushroom shaped polyps are called pedunculated polyps.

Are polyps related to bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer (colorectal cancer) is the most common internal cancer. It is the second most common cause of cancer death in Australia. Some polyps have the potential to develop into cancer. Bigger polyps have a higher risk of turning into cancer.

The detection of polyps and bowel cancers can be performed through testing with a stool test called a faecal occult blood test (such as the one run by the government in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Project or a colonoscopy. As polyps and even early bowel cancer does not cause symptoms, it is recommended that everyone over the age of 50 have some type of colorectal cancer screening. Whether you undergo a stool test or colonoscopy is dependent on your family history of bowel cancer, whether you have any bowel symptoms or bleeding from the bowels, or if you have had polyps in the past. If you return a positive stool test, you will be referred on for a colonoscopy.

How are polyps treated?

A polyp can be removed by a wire snare with or without cautery during a colonoscopy. This is called polypectomy. The polyp is then sent to the laboratory to assess for the type of polyp and if there is any early cancer within the polyp. If you have adenomatous polyps, you are at greater risk for developing polyps and cancer in the future and therefore, you will require ongoing surveillance colonoscopies. The type, size and number of polyps determines when your next colonoscopy is due. This can range typically from 1-5 years but may be earlier of a very large polyp was removed or the bowel preparation was inadequate and residual stool impairs complete inspection of the colon.

Is colonoscopy and/or polypectomy dangerous?

Overall the procedure is very safe. There is a very low rate of bleeding or damage to the bowel wall (visit our colonoscopy information page to learn more). Patients on blood thinning medications or have unusual or altered bowel anatomy due to prior surgery, or diseases affecting the bowel such as inflammatory bowel disease and extensive diverticular disease can be at higher risk.

What can I do to prevent polyps and bowel cancer in the future?

Ongoing colonoscopies for surveillance are required if you have had a polyp as you are more likely to develop more. Otherwise there are no specific recommendations apart from a healthy lifestyle such as smoking cessation, maintaining a healthy body weight, regular physical exercise and a nutritious diet.

Further Information

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