IBD Increases Colon Cancer Risk—Here’s What to Do About It

The good news: IBD treatment can minimize the risk.

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When you think about treatment for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), you probably think about wanting to reduce the number and severity of its symptoms, like diarrhea, bloody stool, and abdominal pain. These are all disruptive symptoms that can reduce your quality of life and make everyday tasks challenging.

However, treatment for the types of IBD—including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis—also aims at healing the inflammation in the digestive tract. That’s because chronic inflammation over time can lead to additional health concerns—including colon cancer.    

“People who have inflammatory bowel disease have chronic states of inflammation in the intestinal tract,” says Elliot Newman, MD, chief of surgical oncology at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health System. This can lead to dysplasia—when chronic inflammation causes normal cells to become abnormal, thus increasing the risk of cancer.

In the United States, colorectal cancer affects 4.5 percent of men and 4 percent of women, according to the American Cancer Society. However, people with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis have a slightly higher risk, depending on how long they have had the disease and how severe or extensive the inflammation is.

How to Manage Your Risk of Colon Cancer

If you have Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, you are not “doomed” to colon cancer. There are things you can do to lower your risk, as well as to catch colon cancer early.

For starters, someone with IBD should get colon cancer screenings earlier and more often than someone with average risk. For example, the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation recommends that people who have had IBD symptoms for eight years or longer should have a colonoscopy every one to two years. (Find out what to expect at your first colonoscopy here.)

Additionally, good disease management can reduce your risk of colon cancer. Effective treatment for IBD involves taking your medications as prescribed (even when you’re feeling well), living a healthy lifestyle for IBD, and checking in with your gastroenterologist at least once a year. Here are other tips to lower your risk of colon cancer (whether you have IBD or not). 

“There seems to be some evidence that people with inflammatory bowel disease who are treated and can keep the inflammatory cycles controlled … might have a lower risk of developing colon cancer,” says Dr. Newman.