What are some precancerous indicators of colorectal cancer?

Dr. Jill K. Onesti, MD
Surgical Oncologist

While performing a colonoscopy for colorectal cancer, your doctor will look inside your colon for polyps, which can be precancerous (adenomas) or simply hyperplastic. Either way, these polyps can be removed. The pathologist will look at these polyps under a microscope to determine if these are precancerous polyps. Your doctor will discuss with you the implications of the pathology results and also guidelines for future screening. If polyps are identified, you would likely need to undergo more frequent colonoscopy exams. It is very important to follow these recommendations, as many colorectal cancers can be either prevented or caught at an early stage.

Some precancerous indicators of colorectal cancer include:

  • changes in bowel habits
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • rectal bleeding

Colorectal cancer can be hereditary, however the majority of cases are sporadic. It is for this reason that symptoms should be taken seriously and people should get appropriate screening.

In most people, colorectal cancers develop slowly over a period of several years. Before a cancer develops, a growth of tissue or tumor usually begins as a non-cancerous polyp on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. A tumor is abnormal tissue and can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). A polyp is a benign, non-cancerous tumor. Some polyps can change into cancer but not all do. The chance of changing into a cancer depends upon the kind of polyp:

  1. Adenomatous polyps (adenomas) are polyps that have the potential to change into cancer. Because of this, adenomas are called a pre-cancerous condition
  2. Hyperplastic polyps and inflammatory polyps, in general, are not pre-cancerous. But some doctors think that some hyperplastic polyps can become pre-cancerous or might be a sign of having a greater risk of having adenomas and cancer, particularly when these polyps grow in the ascending colon.
  3. Dysplasia is another kind of pre-cancerous condition, where an area of the cells in the lining of the colon or rectum looks abnormal (but not like true cancer cells) under a microscope. These cells can change into cancer over time. Dysplasia is usually seen in those who have had diseases such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, which cause chronic inflammation of the colon, for many years.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.