April 4, 2019

Here’s Why Inflammatory Bowel Diseases Like Crohn’s Disease And Ulcerative Colitis Increases Your Risk For Colon Cancer

Chronic inflammation leads to repetitive damage to the lining in your intestinal wall, making your colon more vulnerable to cancer

Inflammatory bowel disease

Living with an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) means you’re faced with a new normal. Nutritional plans, lifestyle changes and being physically active on a regular basis can make a world of difference when you’re faced with flare-ups from Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

But when these conditions go unnoticed, unmanaged or untreated for long periods of time, they can wreak havoc on your bowels and leave your intestines vulnerable to bigger problems like cancer.

Below, colorectal surgeon Scott R. Steele, MD, MBA, explains just how these chronic conditions are linked with colon cancer and what you can do to reduce your risk.

The link between ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease and cancer

Doctors aren’t entirely sure what causes inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. But we do know that they’re related to a dysfunctional immune response that occurs within your digestive tract.

When you have one of these chronic conditions, you can experience inflammation that builds up and spreads throughout your digestive tract — from your anus through your colon and all the way up to your stomach and your small intestine (for Crohn’s). With each flare-up, inflammation may worsen over time so that it causes damage to the lining of your intestinal walls, leaving them swollen, irritated, damaged and often covered in lesions or scar tissue. In the attempt for the lining of your intestinal wall to heal itself from these attacks, your cells try to recover and regrow. But this can lead to an over-abundance of cell growth resulting in polyps, precancerous growth and colorectal (colon) cancer.


“Anything associated with chronic inflammation is a risk factor for the development of colorectal cancer because chronic inflammation leads to a higher turnover of the lining of the cells in the colon, which may ultimately lead to the development of colorectal cancer,” explains Dr. Steele.

Of those with IBD, who is most at risk?

Some studies have found that people who have IBD are six times more likely to develop colorectal cancer than the general population. Recent studies have shown that IBD-related colorectal cancers have declined in recent decades due to improved cancer screenings and improved inflammation management. But several of the following factors have been identified to increase your risk for colon cancer if you’re living with IBD:

“Certain disease processes go together and ulcerative colitis and PSC in some patients are connected,” adds Dr. Steele. “When you have PSC, you tend to have more potent or worse colon inflammation and symptoms, which leads to a slightly higher risk of having colon cancer.”

Why colon cancer screening is important

“People who have been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease should be getting exams regularly just to monitor their underlying disease, so they’re probably getting evaluated for colon cancer to begin with,” says Dr. Steele. “Certainly, if they have biopsies that show dysplasia, or abnormal tissues, we will follow those patients more often up to and including annually or every other year, depending on what the biopsies show.”


That means even if your IBD is in remission, you should still get screened for colon cancer on a regular basis, especially if you haven’t been examined in the last five to 10 years. These screenings can help doctors catch colon cancer even in its precancerous and earliest stages of growth — and, during examination, they can remove these areas of concern in real-time.

“The unique thing about endoscopies is that they can detect tumors when someone is asymptomatic and they’re just at their infancy, at the dysplasia or small polyp stage,” says Dr. Steele. “Other cancers, like pancreatic cancer, are oftentimes diagnosed at a later stage. But an endoscopy has the ability to detect polyps, early-stage lesions and multiple polyps throughout the colon, or to even give people a peace-of-mind that they don’t have anything growing in their colon.”

How to reduce your cancer risk

If you’re living with IBD, reducing your risk for cancer is directly tied to reducing IBD flare-ups. By focusing on healthy habits and lifestyle changes, you can lower your risk for cancer by trying the following:

“Certainly, the development of cancer has multiple factors linked to it,” explains Dr. Steele. “But it’s important that a healthy lifestyle includes regular screening examinations, and open communication with your healthcare provider is critical. Endoscopy has a role in colon screening and can even save your life.”

Related Articles

At-home stool test sample and report generated
February 28, 2024
Is an At-Home Colon Cancer Test Worth Trying?

At-home screening options can be good detection tools, but a colonoscopy remains the gold standard

Older man and younger man talking over coffee at a cafe
February 21, 2024
Is Colon Cancer Hereditary?

Knowing your family history and getting a genetic test can help detect colorectal cancer earlier

person practicing mindfulness at night time on a yoga mat
February 5, 2024
Living Well With Crohn’s Disease: 8 Self-Care Tips

Studies show a strong self-care regimen can improve symptoms and overall health

Person clutching stomach, with over-sized digestive track in background
January 30, 2024
A Nutritional Plan for Anyone Living With Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis

If you have IBD, there are roughly nine food types that might contribute to inflammation flare-ups

person scratching at their itchy skin on their chest
January 2, 2024
Is Itchy Skin a Sign of Cancer?

Anything from minor irritations and chronic diseases to, yes, cancer can cause persistent itching

Castor bean pods, castor beans and a vial of castor oil
December 7, 2023
No, Castor Oil Won’t Solve All (or Any) of Your Health Problems

The oil some TikTokkers swear by can actually cause stomach and eye issues, as well as skin rashes

Baked salmon with a salad on the side plated on an individual clay platter.
October 9, 2023
What To Eat To Lower Your Risk of Colon Cancer

Get lots of fiber, cut back on red meat and limit your alcohol intake

Illustration of the colon, large intesitine, small intestine and colon in the body with a pain icon above.
August 29, 2023
8 Signs That Irritable Bowel Syndrome’s Causing Your Digestive Troubles

Symptoms of IBS usually include abdominal pain, coupled with bloating and more

Trending Topics

close up of keto gummies
Do Keto Gummies Work for Weight Loss? Are They Safe?

Research is inconclusive whether or not these supplements are helpful

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

Older person postioned sideways showing dowager hump.
Dowager’s Hump: What It Is and How To Get Rid of It

The hump at the base of your neck may be caused by osteoporosis or poor posture