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What Is a Precancerous Polyp?

By Mike Howells
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A precancerous polyp, or adenoma, is a small mass of tissue found most commonly on the inside of the digestive tract. As many as half of all people have some number of these lumps in their intestine. For the most part, these lumps are benign and never become malignant. Doctors do consider their presence serious because of the risk of cancer development, and polyps should be identified, monitored, and dealt with through periodic screenings.

Polyps are relatively small, and most are no more than one inch (2.5 cm) in diameter. They sit on small stalks that are connected to the lining of the intestine. The likelihood of an individual having a polyp increases most dramatically with age. Other risk factors include smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, and heredity. The chances of acquiring polyps can similarly be reduced by adhering to a smoke-free, healthy lifestyle.

The presence of polyps is generally asymptomatic, meaning they do not cause any kind of discomfort or other signs belying their presence. Only extremely large polyps tend to result in physical side effects, generally abdominal pain or bloody stool, and in rare cases bowel obstruction. For this reason, preventative screening is highly important.

Stool tests and gastrointestinal scopes, such as a colonoscopy, are two of the methods used to determine the existence of polyps. A doctor may also insert a very mild radioactive barium mixture into the intestine and take an X-ray. In this test, polyps show up white on the X-ray image. Barium X-rays are considered less precise than physical scopes, and though they do not require the sedation or recovery time of a colonoscopy, they are less preferred by doctors as a means of identifying problems.

Any polyps detected in a screening can be easily removed, often during the screening procedure itself. They are then tested to see if they are malignant or not. Smaller polyps are less likely to be cancerous, but all are removed for testing purposes. Though a precancerous polyp by definition is not cancerous, some do become malignant over time, generally within five to ten years.

Colon cancer is one of the deadliest types of cancer but also one of the easiest to prevent through precancerous polyp screening. Cancer restricted to the abdominal wall can effectively be cured through surgery. If left untreated, colon cancer can spread to nearby lymph nodes and become much more difficult to treat. Given the high correlation between aging and precancerous polyp development, doctors recommend annual screenings for everyone over the age of 50.

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Discussion Comments

By anon1003559 — On Jul 23, 2020

The doc found a polyp next to my appendix. I will need to lose half my large intestine to remove it -- one polyp! God help me!

By anon1002952 — On Mar 30, 2020

I went to get my screening at age 50. Leading up to the procedure, it seemed like a big deal getting it done. But, the prep was annoying but not awful-- some fasting and drinking a bottle of Miralax. And the procedure itself is done under sedation so it was easy.

They found at least 12 polyps. Many were over a centimeter in size. They would likely have turned cancerous and killed me if not found.

I will now gladly go to annual screenings. In fact, I had 2 more colonoscopies done 3 months apart to make sure they got all the polyps and they were no big deal.

Don't delay. Get your screening done. Even if they find nothing, it is not a waste of time.

By anon998296 — On May 10, 2017

My husband just had his second colonoscopy today. He turned 60 this month. His first one was all clear at the age of 50. With this one, however, he had five polyps, and two were considered large; they are believed to be precancerous polyps. We will know for sure when test results come back. He now has to go back in three years instead of 10 like before. Please don't put your life at risk by avoiding your test when the time comes.

By anon997628 — On Feb 07, 2017

I am 66 years old and have had about 65 polyps removed in the past six months. One came back pre-cancerous. I still have 25 or more to go. My next surgery will be in march. I never had any idea there was a problem. I am the only one in my family that I know of to have this mess!

By anon991081 — On May 25, 2015

I am a 51 year old relatively healthy female, I almost cancelled my colonoscopy a few times as the date was approaching but I convinced myself that better go through with it. I felt fine and had no symptoms; this was just a routine medical test.

I ended up with a very large area that had to be removed and five staples were placed. I felt fine the next day. I was in for my follow up appointment today and the doctor said that having the colonoscopy most likely saved my life. I am so glad I did not cancel my appointment after all. I am now considered high risk and will have to have another colonoscopy in six months and then every year after for a few years as a precaution. If you are avoiding the procedure, you could be putting yourself at risk.

By KoiwiGal — On Sep 15, 2013

@pastanaga - It's only a waste of time until they find something and then it's the most important thing you've ever done. And, as it says on the article, lots of people do have colon polyps, so it's actually rare to not find anything at all.

Everyone is supposed to be screened after they reach a certain age. It's much less trouble than you'll have if you end up getting sick.

By pastanaga — On Sep 14, 2013

@MrsPramm - My mother had a colonoscopy a few months ago. I always thought it was a couple of hours out of your day at the most, but it's actually really involved. She had to quit eating and drink a strong laxative for a day before the procedure. She felt very sick the whole time. And they looked through both her mouth and the other end to check her whole system.

And they didn't even find anything. She was worried there would be cancer, but there wasn't even any precancerous colon polyps.

I just hope I'll be able to convince her to do it again in a few years when she's due for another check up, because I think she thinks of it now as a complete waste of time.

By MrsPramm — On Sep 13, 2013

We have colon cancer in our family and are fairly religious about going to get screened for precancerous polyps. I haven't got to the right age for it yet, but I'm certainly not going to neglect it when I do.

It's uncomfortable and can be very embarrassing. But my grandfather regularly had growths removed that could have otherwise killed him, right up until he was moved into a hospice. And my sister has had trouble as well.

No matter how healthy you are, if you've got a genetic predisposition towards bowel cancer, you should go and get screened as often as you're supposed to. It's a horrible way to die and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

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