Is There a Link Between IBD and Cancer?

Quincy AdamUC Lifestyle

Aside from the immediate, daily challenges of life with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), there are also long-term concerns.

One of the most common is the potential increased cancer risk for people with IBD. But is there are real connection between IBD and cancer? And if so, what can be done about it?

The link between IBD and cancer

Current research indicates that there is a greater risk of developing cancer if a patient already has IBD. This link has been acknowledged for some time. For example, a 2007 study in published in the Diseases of Colon and Rectum Journal found an increased risk of cancers of the small bowel and colon as well as a higher occurrence of lymphoma in patients with Crohn’s disease.1 The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America reports “if you have had inflammation of the colon, you are at a higher risk for developing CRC (colorectal cancer) than the general population.2 The risk seems to be related to how long you have had the disease and how much of the colon is affected.

While colorectal cancer seems to be a major concern, it is not the only cancer tied to IBD. Studies at The University of Utah conducted between 1996 and 2006 revealed that pancreatic cancer is also linked to IBD in certain segments of the population. For example, men with IBD were over six times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer, and people with ulcerative colitis were nearly five times as likely.3 The survival rate of pancreatic cancer is low (the five-year rate is six percent according to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research4) because it is usually not discovered until the cancer has reached an advanced stage It is important to be aware of the increased risk for screening purposes.

IBD may be tied to an increased risk of other forms of cancer, according to a 2008 study in the Annals of Oncology.5 In this study, researchers identified a higher rate of lung, kidney, liver and other cancers in Crohn’s patients compared to the rest of the population.

Why is this? One reason could be that autoimmune diseases, such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, have a tendency to lead to the development of malignancy due to the over-activity of the immune system.6 While the immune system prevents the growth of malignant tumors when it’s working as it should, it appears as though the functions that lead to autoimmunity actually encourage tumor growth. Also, at the heart of IBD is inflammation of the GI tract. This inflammation has long been linked to the development of cancer.7

Taking preventative measures

While there is no known cure for IBD, there are steps patients can take in order to stay on top of their health status and catch any signs of cancer before they develop further. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America recommends the following:

  • Stay on medications, even if your symptoms are currently in remission.
  • See your gastroenterologist yearly for a checkup no matter how well you feel.
  • Report any changes in symptoms as soon as they occur.
  • Keep your doctor informed of your family history of cancer.
  • Go over your list of medications with your doctor.
  • Maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly.

Another preventative measure against colon cancer is colectomy, where either a portion of or the entire colon is removed. The presence of precancerous polyps may warrant this surgery.

The link between IBD and cancer can be alarming. However, knowing the risks allows you to work with your healthcare team to stay on top of new symptoms and perform routine screenings.

1 Von roon AC, Reese G, Teare J, Constantinides V, Darzi AW, Tekkis PP. The risk of cancer in patients with Crohn’s disease. Dis Colon Rectum. 2007;50(6):839-55.
2 Available at: [Accessed September 22, 2015].
3 Available at: [Accessed April 16, 2015].
4 Available at: [Accessed September 21, 2015].
5 Hemminki K, Li X, Sundquist J, Sundquist K. Cancer risks in Crohn disease patients. Ann Oncol. 2009;20(3):574-80.
6 Franks AL, Slansky JE. Multiple associations between a broad spectrum of autoimmune diseases, chronic inflammatory diseases and cancer. Anticancer Res. 2012;32(4):1119-36.
7 Rakoff-nahoum S. Why cancer and inflammation? Yale J Biol Med. 2006;79(3-4):123-30.