There is a significant link between ulcerative colitis (UC) and colorectal cancer. If you have UC, your risk of developing colorectal cancer is six times greater. And the longer you have had ulcerative colitis, the higher your risk for colon or rectal cancer becomes. Why are these two conditions of the intestines connected?
Ulcerative colitis is a chronic (long-term) inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation or swelling and ulcers in your large intestine, which is called the colon. The inflammation causes pain in the innermost lining of your intestines and rectum. Besides cancer, the inflammation caused by ulcerative colitis can cause complications such as arthritis, eye inflammation, liver disease, and osteoporosis. While there's no cure for UC, medications and lifestyle changes can calm the inflammation and help you live with the disease. In some cases, surgery is recommended.
Most UC cases are diagnosed before age 30, although UC can happen at older ages. It occurs equally in men and women. Your risk of developing ulcerative colitis is higher if you:
Ulcerative colitis symptoms vary depending on how severe the inflammation is and where it occurs. Some UC patients have mild, manageable symptoms or long periods of remission. Others have flare-ups (periods of active disease) with severe symptoms.
Inflammation caused by ulcerative colitis can damage your colon lining and increase your risk of complications, including a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer develops from abnormal cells in the colon, rectum or both. Healthy cells can change (mutate), causing them to grow, accumulate and form a tumor. Colorectal cancer usually starts as a polyp – a small group of cells that develops on the lining of the colon or rectum. Some polyps are not cancerous, some are precancerous and can turn into cancer, and some already have early-stage cancer. When polyps are found early, they can be removed before they turn into cancer.
Your risk of developing colorectal cancer increases if you:
Inflammation is what causes ulcerative colitis patients to have a higher risk of colorectal cancer. Chronic inflammation increases your colorectal cancer risk by:
If you have ulcerative colitis, your risk of developing colorectal cancer is higher if you have:
Because of UC's link to colorectal cancer, it's important to reduce your risk of developing UC. And if you have a UC diagnosis already, there are things you can do to help reduce the flare ups that can happen.
Colorectal cancer is highly treatable when found early. Because ulcerative colitis patients are more likely to develop colon or rectal cancer, a regular screening schedule is critical. There are several ways colorectal cancer screening can be done. Talk with your doctor about what may be best for you.
If you have UC and get a colorectal cancer diagnosis, request an appointment with a medical oncologist. Even though surgery may have removed the cancer, there can be invisible cancer cells that need to be treated in the colon and/or other areas of the body. The medical oncologist, together with the radiation oncology team and other experts at our cancer center, will develop an individualized colorectal cancer treatment plan for you. Be sure to talk about your history of ulcerative colitis when meeting with the oncologist.
Request an appointment with one of our colorectal cancer specialists. We also offer second opinions for a cancer treatment plan you may have already received.