How to interpret your colonoscopy results

March 11, 2020 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

Colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer in the United States and the second leading cause of cancer-related death.

Though most colon polyps do not turn into cancer, some polyps do. Because there are typically no symptoms associated with polyps and it can take up to 10 years for a polyp to turn cancerous, regular screenings are one of the most important tools for early detection and prevention of colon cancer.

Current guidelines from the American Cancer Society recommend that people at average risk should begin regular screenings, which could include an analysis of a stool sample or other tests including a colonoscopy, at age 45.

Your doctor may recommend screenings at an earlier age if you have a family history of colon cancer, a personal history of colon cancer or polyps, a personal history of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, or have undergone radiation to the abdomen for a prior cancer.

Let’s say you’ve had a colonoscopy that revealed a polyp, what does it mean?

Polyps can be divided into two main categories: non-neoplastic (benign or “hyperplastic”) polyps do not have the potential to become cancer and neoplastic (malignant or pre-malignant; also known as “adenomatous”) polyps, which have the potential to become cancer.

Neoplastic polyps can be divided into subsets:

  • Adenomatous polyps are distinguished by their type and shape and grouped as villous (the most likely to turn into cancer), followed by tubulovillous and tubular polyps. It is estimated that 10 to 30 percent of these types of polyps are familial or linked to a genetic condition.
  • A carcinomatous polyp is a polyp that already contains cancer. These account for about 5 percent of all adenomas.
  • Serrated polyps can be flat or attached by a narrow stalk. There are three types of serrated polyps: hyperplastic polyps, which are typically less than 5 mm in size and not cancerous; sessile serrated adenomas (SSA); and traditional serrated adenomas (TSA). While SSAs and TSAs are rare, they are considered precursors to cancer.

Treatment for your polyps often involves removing them either during your colonoscopy through biopsy or, in some cases, through surgery.

The National Polyp Study found that polypectomy (or the removal of polyps) decreases the risk of cancer by 80 percent. Because adenomas are likely to recur, it’s important to follow up with your doctor and continue with regular screenings.

Though polyps often don’t typically produce any symptoms, be sure to talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing abdominal pain, rectal bleeding or changes in your bowel habits that last more than a week.

Also, be sure to contact your insurance company prior to your colonoscopy to verify your specific coverage.

Are you at risk for colon cancer? Take our online ColonAware assessment.

Related blogs:

How to make a colonoscopy more comfortable

I’m supposed to get a colonoscopy, what are my next steps?

Fecal matters: An at-home alternative to a colonoscopy

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