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GI Cancer Risk

Many factors can affect how likely you are to develop gastrointestinal cancer (cancer originating in the digestive system). At the Abramson Cancer Center, we offer comprehensive services to help you understand your individual cancer risk and make the right decisions for you. Our team offers national expertise in hereditary gastrointestinal cancers, such as pancreatic, stomach and colon cancer. We deliver exceptional care with personal support.

Gastrointestinal Cancer Risk Factors

A cancer risk factor is anything that increases your chances of developing cancer. Different types of gastrointestinal cancer have different risk factors, only some of which you can control. Your age, health, lifestyle and genes can affect your cancer risk in numerous ways. Having one or more risk factors doesn’t mean you’ll develop cancer, however.


GI cancer typically develops after age 50. But most cancers can affect people of all ages. Colorectal cancer rates in particular have increased in younger age groups. The American Cancer Society and the US Preventive Services Task Force, now recommend people at average risk begin colon cancer screenings at age 45.


Research has shown that men are more likely than women to develop cancer overall.


The choices you make every day can make a big difference. Lifestyle factors that can affect your GI cancer risk include:

  • Diet: Eating mostly foods that are high in fat and low in fiber increases your risk.
  • Physical activity: Living a sedentary (inactive) life is linked to several GI cancers.
  • Weight: Obesity increases your risk of developing several GI cancers, including colon cancer, rectal cancer, esophageal cancer and pancreatic cancer.
  • Smoking: Tobacco is a proven carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) that is associated with many GI cancers.
  • Alcohol: Drinking too much alcohol increases your overall risk, especially for liver cancer.

Medical Conditions

Having certain medical conditions can increase your risk for different GI cancers:

  • Barrett’s esophagus: Barrett’s esophagus happens when stomach acid (acid reflux) damages and inflames the lining of the esophagus (the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach). People with this condition have an increased risk of esophageal cancer.
  • Colon polyps: Most colorectal cancers start as polyps (precancerous, abnormal growths inside the intestines). Larger polyps are more likely to turn into cancer. Colon cancer screenings such as colonoscopy help doctors detect and remove polyps before they turn into cancer.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV): Certain strains of this common virus, which spreads through sexual contact, are linked to anal cancer.
  • Hepatitis C: Chronic infection with the hepatitis C virus can damage your liver, causing cirrhosis (a risk factor for liver cancer).

Hereditary Cancer Syndromes

A small percentage of GI cancers are caused by a genetic mutation (change) that gets passed down through families. Cancers that are associated with certain genetic mutations are called hereditary cancer syndromes.

The most common hereditary cancer syndromes that can lead to GI cancer include:

  • Lynch syndrome: Lynch syndrome is the most common cause of hereditary GI cancer. This inherited condition is also called hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC) or Muir-Torre syndrome. People with Lynch syndrome have an increased colon cancer risk.
  • Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome: BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations are commonly associated with an increased breast cancer risk. However, these genetic mutations also increase your risk of developing hereditary pancreatic cancer. Penn Medicine’s Basser Center for BRCA is the first comprehensive center dedicated to BRCA-related research and caring for people with BRCA-related cancers. We offer a program dedicated to pancreatic cancer risk management.
  • Polyposis: This refers to a group of syndromes that can cause you to have an increased number of polyps (abnormal growths) in the gastrointestinal tract. Having colon polyps can predispose you to developing colorectal cancers.
  • Hereditary diffuse gastric cancer (HDGC) syndrome: This condition is associated with a CDH1 or CTNNA1 gene mutation. It greatly increases your risk of developing an aggressive form of stomach cancer.

How We Help You Manage Cancer Risk

Penn offers comprehensive evaluation services to identify your cancer risk. Our GI cancer specialists assess your health using advanced diagnostic tests personalized to your needs.

Depending on your personal risk factors and family history, you may benefit from a gastrointestinal cancer risk evaluation to learn more about your hereditary cancer risk. At the Gastrointestinal Cancer Genetics Program, our experts specialize in hereditary gastrointestinal cancers. We offer genetic counseling, testing and guidance to help you assess your risk and make care decisions that protect your future health.

Request an Appointment

Call 215-615-5858 to speak with one of our GI cancer experts. To schedule an appointment at Penn Medicine’s Gastrointestinal Cancer Genetics Program, fill out our online form or call 215-349-8222.