What Is a Polyp? What Are the Risk Factors for Polyps? And When Can Polyps Turn into Cancer?

What are polyps of the colon?

Polyps found in the colon are small, fleshy, clump-like growths on the inner colon lining or the rectum that might become cancerous. When the genetic material within the cells that line the colon mutates and grows abnormally, it forms clumps or polyps. Under normal circumstances the cells lining the colon, which are initially immature, divide, mature, and then eventually die in a timely and consistent manner. But when mutation occurs, the cells undergo a genetic change and do not mature or die. Instead, they accumulate and form clumps called polyps.

What are the risk factors for polyps? 

There are a few risk factors that can lead to the formation of polyps and, if undetected or untreated, cancer of the colon.

  1. Age

The risk of colon polyps is greater in people over 50 years of age, as statistics have revealed greater numbers of patients over 50.

  1. Race

It has been found that those of African American origin are at a greater risk of developing cancer of the colon.

  1. Family history

If a parent, child, or sibling in a family has colon polyps, the chances of developing polyps are high in the other family members. In case several family members suffer from polyps, the chances increase greatly. However, in some cases of colon polyps, no hereditary connection was found.

  1. Inflammatory intestinal conditions

Conditions such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis greatly increase the risk.

  1. Type 2 diabetes

In cases of uncontrolled diabetes, the risk of developing polyps increases.

  1. Alcohol and tobacco

Use of alcohol and tobacco is also considered a risk factor for polyps.

  1. Lack of exercise and obesity

The chances of polyps developing in the colon increase in case of obesity and lack of physical exercise.

Additionally, those suffering from hereditary disorders, such as Gardner’s syndrome, Lynch syndrome, serrated polyposis syndrome, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, MYH-associated polyposis, and familial adenomatous polyposis, are also at risk of colon polyps.

When can colon polyps turn into cancer? 

Not all polyps are cancerous, but 95 percent of colorectal cancer arises from polyps. Generally, most of the polyps remain benign and are referred to as hyperplastic polyps with the chances of them turning into cancer being very low. Some other polyps are benign, but have a chance of turning into cancer, if not removed in time. These are referred to as precancerous, with hamartomatous and adenomatous being two examples. Adenomatous polyps with stems or cilia have been found to turn cancerous. But normally it is difficult to identify which polyps will turn into cancer. The polyps go through a number of abnormalities before they can give rise to cancer. These changes are a result of mutations in the DNA of the cells. So, post mutations, benign cells might have earlier undergone low-grade abnormal cell growth or dysplasia, which then can escalate to high-grade dysplasia and eventually into cancer. This happens over a span of years. Therefore, most of the time, patients with polyps undergo a colonoscopy and have the polyps removed, irrespective of them being benign or malignant.