Ulcerative Colitis and Colorectal Cancer: What’s the Connection?

October 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Jeffrey A. Meyerhardt, MD, MPH

Key Takeaways:

  • If someone has ulcerative colitis, they are at a higher risk for colorectal cancer.
  • Most patients with ulcerative colitis will not get colorectal cancer — but because of the increased risk, they should be more vigilant about colorectal cancer screenings.

What is ulcerative colitis?

Ulcerative colitis is a form of inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation in the lining of the colon. Ulcers and open sores can also form on the colon lining in response to the inflammation. Ulcerative colitis is a lifelong chronic illness that can have recurrences or flare-ups throughout life.

Who is at risk for developing ulcerative colitis?

Anyone can get ulcerative colitis at any age. There are certain factors that can increase someone’s risk for getting ulcerative colitis. These factors include:

  • Having a close relative with inflammatory bowel disease
  • Being between 15 and 30, or older than 60
  • Eating a high-fat diet
  • Using frequent nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen

What are the signs or symptoms of ulcerative colitis?

Symptoms of ulcerative colitis can get worse as time goes on. Typically, the beginning symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea or urgent bowel movements
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Tiredness
  • Nausea
  • Weight loss
  • Anemia

As the ulcerative colitis worsens, the patient may experience:

  • Blood, mucus, or pus in bowel movements
  • Severe cramping
  • Fever
  • Skin rashes
  • Mouth sores
  • Joint pain
  • Red, painful eyes
  • Liver disease
  • Loss of fluids and nutrients

Is ulcerative colitis connected to colorectal cancer?

Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory disease which can cause an increase in the turnover of cells in the intestinal lining. This increases the chances for irregularities in the cells, which can lead to colorectal cancer.

Remember: An increased risk of developing colorectal cancer does not mean that a patient with ulcerative colitis will definitely develop colorectal cancer. Talk over any risk factors you have with your doctor, who can help determine how often you should be screened for colorectal cancer.

About the Medical Reviewer

Jeffrey A. Meyerhardt, MD, MPH

Dr. Meyerhardt received his MD from Yale School of Medicine in 1997. He completed a residency in internal medicine at Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center, in Boston, followed by a medical oncology fellowship at DFCI. He joined the Gastrointestinal Cancer Center at DFCI in 2002..

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