Up to 1 million Americans have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD); the main
types are ulcerative
colitis and Crohn's disease. The inner lining of the gastrointestinal tract
becomes inflamed and damaged, causing abdominal
pain, diarrhea (which may be bloody), weight loss, and rectal
A few years ago, University of Utah researchers say they noticed that
pancreatic cancer seemed to be developing at higher-than-normal rates in IBD
patients and their family members.
To see if there was an association, the researchers studied 2,877 adults
treated for IBD at the University of Utah Health System from January 1996 to
December 2006. Their records were then compared with information from the Utah
Cancer Registry and the Utah Population Database.
That way, they could figure out the rate of pancreatic cancer in the general
population as well as the rate of pancreatic cancer in people with IBD and
compare the two.
"We had striking and unexpected results," says Jason Schwartz, MD, assistant
professor of surgery at the University of Utah.
"We thought there would be an association, but we were surprised at the
strength of the association," he tells WebMD.
Compared with what would be expected in the general population:
People with IBD had a 3.36-fold higher risk of pancreatic cancer.
People with ulcerative colitis had a 4.85-fold higher risk of
Men with IBD had a 6.22-fold higher risk of pancreatic cancer.
Women with IBD did not appear to be at increased risk of pancreatic
There did not appear to be an association between Crohn's disease and
The findings were presented at Digestive Disease Week 2010 in New
IBD Linked to Pancreatic Cancer: Confirmation Needed
Schwartz says that theoretically, repeated bouts of inflammation in the
intestinal tract have the potential to cause cancer.
Still, the study does not prove cause and effect. And the results need to be
confirmed and upheld in a national study, he says.
Further studies also need to look at whether family members of people with
IBD are at increased risk of pancreatic cancer, Schwartz says.
But if corroborated, the findings could open the door for new screening
recommendations for pancreatic cancer in patients with IBD and their families,
says Craig Fisher, MD, a pancreatic cancer surgeon at Methodist Hospital in
The goal, he tells WebMD, is earlier identification of pancreatic
"There will be about 38,000 new diagnoses of pancreatic cancer this year and
about the same number of deaths," he says.
The reason the cancer carries such a high death rate, Fisher says, is
because it is often diagnosed at a late stage when it can no longer be
"If we can pinpoint patients at higher risk, it could prove [cost-effective]
to screen them," perhaps with endoscopic ultrasound or MRI, he says.