Polyps and Colon Cancer

The statistics are sobering: According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), more than 145,000 people each year are diagnosed with colon cancer, also called colorectal cancer, and nearly 50,000 people die from the disease.

People suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have about a two to five times greater risk of developing colon cancer than those in the general population, although the reasons aren't clear. One theory is that the constant inflammation and repair that occurs in the gastrointestinal tract may cause cells lining the colon and/or rectum to divide so rapidly that they mutate into precancerous cells called dysplastic cells or dysplasia, which can later turn into cancer. Keeping inflammation under good control may decrease the risk of developing the disease.

The good news is that screening tests like colonoscopies, in which the whole colon is examined by inserting a thin, flexible tube, can prevent colon cancer from ever developing or detect it at its earliest stage, when it's most curable, because the test can detect and remove polyps, or growths, as well as obtain random tissue from the lining of the colon to test for dysplasia. If found, the dysplastic tissue or polyps are then divided into either low-grade dysplasia or the more serious high-grade dysplasia, which may be a marker for malignancy (cancer).

If you have IBD, talk to your doctor about when you should schedule a colonoscopy and how frequently. Some experts recommend that IBD sufferers get colonoscopies every one to two years after they've had the disorder for longer than eight years. Being vigilant about taking medication to control IBD symptoms is also crucial because it may decrease colon cancer risk. People with long-term ulcerative colitis (eight years or more) and Crohn's disease sufferers are also at higher risk for developing colon cancer.

Minimizing Your Risk

Regular colonoscopy screenings can greatly reduce the risk of colon cancer. Taking medication to limit IBD flare-ups can also help lower risk. Other ways to reduce risk include:

  • Eating a diet high in vegetables and fruits and whole grains, and limiting or eliminating intake of processed and red meats
  • Avoiding excessive alcohol consumption. The ACS recommends no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men
  • Getting enough physical exercise. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity most days of the week