Ulcerative colitis causes inflammation in the large intestine and rectum. This inflammation damages the cells and causes the symptoms of the condition, but it can also give rise to larger issues, including cancer.

There appears to be a link between ulcerative colitis (UC) and certain types of cancer. People with UC seem to be at greater risk of colorectal cancer, though there are some other factors to consider as well.

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It is important to take steps to reduce the risk of UC or flare-ups whenever possible. There may also be steps to take to reduce the risk of cancer.

What’s the link?

Ulcerative colitis and cancer
People with UC may be up to five times more likely to develop colorectal cancer.

There seems to be a link between UC and colorectal cancer. This type of cancer affects the large intestine or rectum.

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As a study in the Journal of Cancer Research and Therapeutics suggests, a person with UC may be up to five times more likely to develop colorectal cancer than someone who does not have UC.

Also, the same study found that colorectal cancer causes around 15% of deaths related to UC.

How long a person has had UC may also affect their risk of cancer. The risk grows depending on how long they have had UC and how severe it is. After 8–10 years of having UC, a person’s cancer risk increases by around 0.5% to 1% each year.

As mentioned above, the condition’s severity also affects a person’s risk of colorectal cancer. Having uncontrolled or untreated UC puts a person at higher risk of developing colorectal cancer.

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For this reason, it is important to see a doctor when symptoms first arise to discuss treatment options. If UC does not respond to treatment, however, a person should see their doctor to change their treatment plan.

Also, UC may affect varying amounts of the colon. A person’s risk may change depending on how much of the colon UC affects. People with UC that affects most of their colon or their entire colon may have a higher risk of cancer.

Other cancer risk factors for people with UC include:

  • receiving a UC diagnosis at a young age
  • being male
  • having diabetes
  • having a family history of colorectal cancer
  • having primary sclerosing cholangitis, or inflammation and scarring in the bile duct
  • having dysplasia, or precancerous cell damage
  • having had appendix resections

Signs and symptoms to look out for

Knowing the signs to look out for can help. However, many signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer also happen to be signs of inflammatory bowel diseases.

For instance, blood in the stool is a sign of colorectal cancer as well as a symptom of UC. It is easy to confuse the potential signs of cancer with those of a normal UC flare-up. For this reason, it is important to regularly check in with a doctor to discuss and monitor the progression of the condition.

Anyone with UC who experiences the following changes or symptoms should speak with a doctor:

  • diarrhea or constipation
  • constant fatigue
  • frequent stomach symptoms, such as bloating, gas, or cramps
  • vomiting
  • a drastic change in stool shape, such as very narrow stool
  • changes in the frequency of bowel movements
  • unexplained weight loss
  • feeling that the bowel is full after a bowel movement or feeling that the bowel is never fully empty
  • a regular and urgent need to use the bathroom
  • very dark or very bright blood in the stool

Reducing the risk of UC

Ulcerative colitis and cancer drinking water
Staying hydrated reduces the risk of developing UC.

There is no guaranteed way to prevent UC, as the exact underlying cause remains unknown.

However, making some diet and lifestyle changes may help a person stay healthy overall and reduce their risk of UC.

Ways to reduce the risk of UC include:

  • eating a varied, healthful diet
  • staying hydrated
  • limiting soft drink intake
  • managing stress levels
  • exercising regularly

Reducing the risk of cancer

People with UC are at greater risk of developing colorectal cancer, so it is important to take steps to manage this risk.

People with UC should see their doctor at least once per year for annual checkups and scans. At these appointments, they can discuss their condition and overall state of health.

Doctors may be able to help manage the risk of colorectal cancer in people with UC.

Medications that may help

Some medical therapies for UC may offer built-in protection.

For instance, the review in the Journal of Cancer Research and Therapeutics notes that anti-inflammatory medicines for UC, such as 5-ASA, thiopurines, and steroids, can help protect against the inflammatory damage that leads to cancer.

However, it is worth noting that although the researchers explain that the risk of colorectal cancer for people who took these drugs was similar to that of those who did not, the medications may protect against inflammatory damage without reducing the overall risk of colon cancer.

Another study, this one in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, suggests that statins, which typically help lower cholesterol in the body, may reduce the risk of colorectal cancer in people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The research found that people with IBD who took one or more statin drugs were less likely to develop colorectal cancer than those who did not take the drugs.

Another study, in The American Journal of Gastroenterology, found that the anti-inflammatory drug adalimumab (Humira) helps effectively control inflammation in people with UC. This may reduce the cell damage that gives rise to cancer.

Other ways to reduce risk

Having regular checkups is an important part of reducing colorectal cancer risk. People with UC should see their gastroenterologist at least once per year. It is important to discuss any changes to symptoms or treatment, and to be open about any concerns.

Anyone who feels unsatisfied with their treatment should visit more regularly to discuss and explore their options.

It is also important to stay healthy overall. Eating a healthful, balanced diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables and low in processed foods may help keep UC in check. It is also important to eliminate trigger foods and other irritants, such as alcohol or excess amounts of meat.

Exercise is an integral part of staying healthy. Try to find a way to exercise most days of the week, such as by jogging, swimming, or cycling.

For people with UC, reducing the risk of cancer will also involve undergoing regular endoscopies or colonoscopies. This can help catch any signs of colorectal cancer at the earliest possible stage.

When to see a doctor

Ulcerative colitis and cancer doctor
People with UC should regularly check in with their doctor regarding their condition and available treatments.

People with UC should regularly check in with their doctor to discuss any changes in their condition, as well as any new changes in available treatments.

It is also important to have regular scans, as they may help detect early signs of damage that could be precancerous. Catching colorectal cancer early is crucial to effectively treating it.

Also, people who feel that their current treatment plan is not helping with their UC symptoms should see a doctor.

Unchecked damage from UC is a risk factor for colorectal cancer, so having an effective treatment plan is vital.

Summary

People with UC seem to have a higher risk of colorectal cancer. Several factors affect this risk, such as how long a person has had the condition and how severe the damage is.

There are many treatment options available that can help a person manage inflammation in the colon.

Catching the signs of colorectal cancer early on is important, so people with UC should work closely with their doctor to monitor the progression of the condition.

Working with healthcare professionals to monitor the condition and keep the treatment as effective as possible may help people with UC experience fewer symptoms and reduce the risk of developing colorectal cancer.