Obstructive Sleep Apnea Can Raise Your Risk of Cancer

Up until recently, there were only weak associations between obstructive sleep apnea cancer. Now, a new large-scale population study reported that having severe untreated obstructive sleep apnea can increase your odds of dying from cancer by almost 5 times. I’ve written numerous times about how the pathways of cancer and cardiovasular disease is similar: apneas lead to hypoxia and oxidative stress. Physiologic stress also leads to chronic hypoxia while awake in certain preferential areas of the body that are considered “low-priority” such as skin, reproductive and digestive systems. Notice how the most common cancers arise in these particular organ systems. Relatively speaking, rarely do you see someone dying from bone, heart or brain cancers. Lung cancer is the exception, since most are caused by smoking. But if you did develop lung cancer, you’re more likely to die, or not respond to therapy as well, or suffer complications if you have undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea, .

In my book (Sleep Interrupted) that I published almost 4 years ago, I wrote an entire chapter on how sleep-breathing problems can potentially cause cancer. Parts of the body that are chronically oxygen deprived will send out numerous signals to help recruit blood flow by building new blood vessels. Once such messenger that’s well studied is called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). You can imagine how this process can cause local benign tissue growth, but one mutation or genetic insult can suddenly trigger malignant transformation. Not only is hypoxia a potential carcinogen, sleep deprivation from shift work is also classified to be a known carcinogen by the World Health Organization. 

It’s important to remember that this study is a population-based retrospective analysis, and doesn’t prove cause and effect. Despite this, I’m confident that many more studies will be performed showing even stronger cancer-sleep apnea associations. Besides an increased risk heart disease, stroke, heart attack, car accidents and sudden death, there’s one more major reason to have your sleep apnea treated effectively: cancer.

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