Having Crohn’s disease doesn’t mean you will get colorectal cancer, but it does increase your risk.
Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory bowel disorder that can affect the entire gastrointestinal tract. It usually targets the end of the small intestine or the colon.
Experts aren’t sure what exactly causes Crohn’s disease. Research suggests it may be related to the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut microbiome.
“Several factors can disrupt the gut microbiome and cause inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. Research into how this may be addressed and targeted is underway,” says Anusha Thomas, M.D., a gastroenterologist at MD Anderson West Houston.
The most common symptoms of Crohn’s disease are diarrhea, blood in your stool, abdominal pain and weight loss.
Here’s what else to know about the connection between Crohn’s disease and cancer.
How does Crohn’s disease affect colorectal cancer risk?
Crohn’s disease is an autoimmune process that causes the body to attack its own tissue. The resulting long-term injury to the GI tract causes the inflamed areas to be in a constant state of repair and inflammation.
“Your body is replenishing the cells that are damaged over and over again. Sooner or later, with this constant turnover, an error in the replaced cells can result in cancer,” says Thomas. “The longer this process goes on, the higher the chance that these faulty cells become cancer.”
Although Crohn’s can affect all areas of the GI tract and other areas of the body, cancers outside the small intestine, colon, rectum or anus are rare.
How can you reduce your risk of cancer if you have Crohn’s disease?
While there is no cure for Crohn’s disease, it can be managed with medication.
“The goal is to control the inflammation,” says Thomas. “If we can control the inflammation, we worry less about cancer. Once the disease is diagnosed, we follow patients with routine surveillance.”
Surveillance includes regular visits with your doctor to manage your medication and regular screening exams. If you’ve had Crohn’s disease for eight years or more, you should get a colonoscopy every 1 to 2 years.
“The longer there is inflammation, the higher the risk of cancer. That’s why it’s important to start getting colonoscopies if you’ve had Crohn’s disease for longer than eight years,” says Thomas.
What should cancer patients with Crohn’s disease know?
Cancer patients on active treatment should let their doctor know if they have an inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
“When we see cancer patients with Crohn’s at MD Anderson, we have a multidisciplinary discussion with them about medications to treat the inflammatory bowel disease. We talk about the risks, benefits and possible interactions with their cancer therapy,” says Thomas.
Know your body and seek treatment if you notice GI symptoms
If you have GI symptoms, don’t wait. See a doctor if the symptoms last longer than two weeks.
“With inflammatory bowel disease, the sooner you get a diagnosis, the faster you can get your symptoms under control, reduce inflammation and reduce the risk of cancer,” says Thomas.
Crohn’s disease and colon cancer symptoms may overlap. Early detection is also key. The earlier cancer is detected, the better the chances of it being treated successfully.