How Ulcerative Colitis Affects Your Colon Cancer Risk

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on March 25, 2023
3 min read

Ulcerative colitis (UC) is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that causes ulcers to form in the lining of your colon and rectum.

Research shows a link between UC and colorectal cancer.

People with UC are six times more likely to get some form of colorectal cancer. The main reason for this is inflammation.

Chronic inflammation raises your chances of colorectal cancer in three ways:

  • In your bowels, inflammation damages the genetic material in your colon cells. This can create mutations in those cells that could be cancer.
  • It raises your levels of certain molecules that can help cancerous tumors grow.
  • It makes viral and bacterial infections more likely. Those can interfere with your body’s immune system and encourage cancer cells to grow and multiply.

If you have UC, there are some things that raise your chances of getting colorectal cancer. They include if:

  • You've had UC for longer than 8 years.
  • You have a family history of colorectal cancer.
  • UC affects all or most of your colon.
  • The inflammation in your colon is severe or widespread.
  • Your UC leads to conditions like primary sclerosing cholangitis or dysplasia.

People with ulcerative colitis may not know they have colorectal cancer because signs of the cancer can be similar to their UC symptoms. It's helpful to know what red flags to look out for.

Common symptoms of colorectal cancer include:

  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Weight loss you can’t account for
  • Bleeding from your rectum, or blood in your poop
  • Feeling like your bowel isn’t emptying completely
  • Lasting discomfort in your belly and gut, like cramps, gas or pain
  • Ongoing changes in your bowel habits like diarrhea or constipation, or a change in the color or texture of your poop

The earlier your doctor can diagnose colorectal cancer, the easier it is for them to treat. If your UC is severe or if you've had it for a long time, you should visit your doctor more often for tests.

A colonoscopy is a common test. It can find suspicious tissue and cells before they become cancerous. Most experts suggest scheduling a colonoscopy once every 1-2 years if you’ve been living with UC symptoms for 8 years or more.

Also be sure to work with your doctor to manage your inflammation. That will make it easier for them to detect early signs of cancer.

Genetics can play a part, too. So tell your medical team right away if one of your family members finds out that they have colorectal cancer.

In addition to regular screening tests, a few lifestyle changes might lower your chances of colorectal cancer. You should try to:

Your doctor may prescribe medication to help lower your risk of colorectal cancer. One class of medicines, known as aminosalicylates, controls inflammation in your colon. So it’s important to continue taking your prescriptions, even when you're not dealing with many symptoms.

Be sure to stay on top of your health, as well. For example:

  • Make a yearly appointment to see your gastroenterologist.
  • Keep a list of all of your symptoms and concerns to take with you to your doctor visits.