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The Connections Between Crohn’s Disease and Higher Cancer Risk

If you have Crohn’s disease, you know what it’s like to deal with the unpleasant symptoms. The condition is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that irritates your digestive tract. 

The stomach pain, diarrhea, cramping, fatigue and weight loss can make you feel miserable. And worrying about whether you’ll get to the bathroom in time can make it tough to do what you want to do in life.

You may also have heard that Crohn’s disease can increase your risk of certain cancers. The truth is, even if you have Crohn’s disease, your overall risk of these cancers is still low. But when you understand the risks, your health care provider can help you take steps to stay on top of your health.

We reached out to Gautamy Chitiki Dhadham, MD, a gastroenterologist with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, to learn more about the connections between Crohn’s disease and certain types of cancer.

What cancers are linked to Crohn’s disease? 

If you have Crohn’s disease, you may have an increased risk of colorectal cancer and small bowel (intestine) cancer. “That’s because when you have long-lasting, severe inflammation, your cancer risk goes up.” said Dhadham. 

Inflammation can change your cells and damage DNA in ways that may make it more likely for cancer cells to develop. These cells can cause cancer in your digestive system and other parts of your body.

Depending on the type of medication you take for Crohn’s disease, you could also have a higher risk for skin cancer and a type of blood cancer called lymphoma.

How to lower your risk

Keeping Crohn’s disease managed can lower your risk of these cancers. That’s because managing the disease helps keep inflammation in check. These steps can help you keep the condition, and the inflammation, under control. They may also help make your overall health better:

  • Take medication as directed by your doctor: Anti-inflammatory drugs and immune system modulators can help lower your risk of complications. “When Crohn’s disease is controlled well, you reduce inflammation,” said Dhadram.
  • Modify your lifestyle: It can help if you choose a healthy diet, manage your stress and get regular physical activity. These changes may make a big difference in reducing your cancer risk and helping you feel healthier.
  • Avoid using tobacco: “Smoking and tobacco use have huge implications on Crohn’s disease and how you respond to treatment,” said Dhadram.
  • Consider working with a dietitian: A dietitian can help you make any changes you need to the foods you eat. They can also make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D and calcium. When you have Crohn’s disease, your body doesn’t always absorb these nutrients properly so levels can be low.
  • Stay in contact with your health care team: Your providers can check on how active your Crohn’s disease is and modify your treatment plan if needed. 

What to know about screening for cancer 

If you have Crohn’s disease, talk to your provider about when and how often you should be screened for cancer. Colorectal cancer usually doesn’t have symptoms in the early stages. And if there are symptoms, they can be similar to those of Crohn’s disease. So screening is important. 

Your provider may recommend colonoscopies starting earlier than people at average risk. “The age will depend on where the disease is located in your intestines and how long you’ve had Crohn’s disease,” said Dhadham.

They will also consider your other risk factors for colorectal cancer, such as family history, high body weight, smoking, alcohol misuse and inactivity. In addition, they may want you to have imaging tests and lab tests as well as skin exams by a dermatologist. By following their suggested screening schedule, you may find any possible problems earlier when they could be easier to treat. 

It’s important to keep the lines of communication open with your health care provider. By sharing your concerns or symptoms, you can manage your cancer risk. Be sure to reach out to your provider right away if you notice new or different symptoms, such as changes in your bowel habits, unexplained weight loss or skin issues.

The bottom line

If you have Crohn’s disease, it irritates and inflames your digestive system. Over time, that can make it more likely that you could develop certain types of cancer. But your risk of these cancers is still low. 

You can keep your risk as low as possible and stay healthy overall by managing your disease, making healthy lifestyle choices, avoiding tobacco and being screened for cancer. Your health care provider or a Banner gastroenterologist can give you the advice you need on how to manage Crohn’s disease and reduce your risk of cancer.

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