Chronic inflammatory bowel disease and cancer

Hepatogastroenterology. Jan-Feb 2000;47(31):57-70.


Colorectal cancer represents the major cause for excess morbidity and mortality by malignant disease in ulcerative colitis as well as in Crohn's disease. The risk for ulcerative colitis associated colorectal cancer is increased at least 2-fold compared to the normal population and colorectal cancer is observed in 5.5-13.5% of all patients with ulcerative colitis and 0.4-0.8% of patients with Crohn's disease. Established risk factors include long duration of the disease, large extent of the disease, low activity of the disease, young age at onset, presence of complicating primary sclerosing cholangitis or stenotic disease and possibly lack of adequate surveillance, inadequate pharmacological therapy, folate deficiency and non-smoking. Crohn's disease is associated with an increased risk of colorectal carcinoma in patients with long-standing disease, strictures and fistulae under the condition that the colon is involved, tumors of the small intestine may occur occasionally. Extracolonic malignancies are rare, with the exception of biliary tract cancer. Ulcerative colitis associated colorectal cancer typically can occur in the entire colon, is often multifocal and of undifferentiated histology. Stage distribution and prognosis of ulcerative colitis associated colorectal cancer appears to be similar to that of sporadic colorectal cancer with an overall survival of about 40% (15-65%) after 5 years with tumor stage at diagnosis being the most important predictive parameter for survival. Tumor markers helpful for the diagnosis of sporadic colorectal cancer fail to differentiate between inflammatory response and malignant transformation. In contrast the histologic evidence of dysplasia was shown to be a strong indicator of underlying carcinoma or developing malignant transformation. The presence of a surface projection termed dysplasia associated lesion or mass is highly indicative of underlying or associated cancer. While the routinely performed search for dysplasia is hampered by high interobserver variation the demonstration of DNA-aneuploidy or genetic changes which may confirm the ongoing malignant transformation has not yet become clinical routine. The genetic alterations found in ulcerative colitis associated colorectal cancer involve many of the same targets found in sporadic colorectal tumors and include multiple sites of allelic deletion, microsatellite instabilities, and mutations of APC, p53, Ki-ras as well as MSH2 and other genes. The progression of dysplasia to carcinoma is generally accompanied by an accumulation of these mutations and the similarities in the biology of colorectal cancer associated with ulcerative colitis and sporadic colorectal cancer appear to outweigh their difference. In regard to the management of dysplasia and cancer, the role of surveillance programs for the early detection of ulcerative colitis associated colorectal cancer at a curable stage is still under debate. Although these programs failed at tumor prevention and lethal carcinomas are still found inadvertently in patients under surveillance, the majority of surveillance programs could reduce mortality by detecting more cancers at a still curable stage. Current recommendations for surveillance include, therefore, biennial colonoscopy with extensive biopsies after 8-10 years of total colitis or after 15-20 years of left-sided colitis. In the presence of cancer or unequivocal high-grade dysplasia and/or dysplasia associated lesion or mass proctocolectomy is considered adequate. The evidence of low-grade dysplasia should be confirmed before proctocolectomy is considered.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Aneuploidy
  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic
  • Chronic Disease
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / genetics
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Disease Progression
  • Humans
  • Inflammatory Bowel Diseases / complications*
  • Inflammatory Bowel Diseases / genetics
  • Mutation
  • Risk Factors


  • Biomarkers, Tumor