Lupus and Cancer

Doctors have long known that people with lupus tend to get cancer at higher rates than people without the disease. Despite progress in other areas in the treatment of lupus, cancer has remained a stubborn problem, with death rates two to five times higher than the general population.1-4

How does cancer develop?

Healthy cells grow in the body at a steady rate and pass certain “checkpoints” that kill faulty cells or out-of-control growth. When the body fails to stop cells from multiplying too much or misses a mutated cell, the cells can turn into cancer or a tumor.

Types of cancer associated with lupus

A large study from 2018 looked at world-wide statistics to find out whether people with lupus had a greater risk of 24 different types of cancer. The scientists discovered that those 16 different cancers are linked to lupus including:

  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Leukemia
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Cervix
  • Vagina/vulva
  • Renal
  • Bladder
  • Esophagus
  • Gastric
  • Hepatobiliary (liver)
  • Lung
  • Oropharynx (back of the mouth/throat)
  • Larynx
  • Non-melanoma skin
  • Thyroid

The increased risk is the same for both genders. With some cancers, the increased risk is small, and in others more substantial. People with lupus have a decreased risk of developing prostate cancer and cutaneous melanoma. There seems to be no significant link between lupus and cancers of the breast, uterus, ovaries, pancreas, brain or colorectal area.1

What is the connection between lupus and cancer?

Doctors do not yet understand the connection between cancer and lupus. Some theories for why people with lupus get cancer more often than some other people include:2,4

  • Immunosuppressant drugs are tied to increased rates of some cancers
  • Overstimulation of B-cells, a process of lupus, combined with genetic mutations that keep the immune system from working properly
  • Increased estrogen levels if on hormone replacement therapy
  • Flawed immunity that makes it harder to fight off the human papillomavirus (HPV) and flawed cells that grow into tumors
  • Genetic factors
  • Environmental triggers

Decreasing your risk of developing cancer

There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing cancer, even if you do have lupus. Because certain types of cancer are more common in people with lupus, it is important to get regular screenings such as pap smears, mammograms, and colon cancer screenings.

You can also make lifestyle changes that may help prevent cancer. Your doctor may recommend that you stop smoking and drinking alcohol, lose weight, exercise more, and avoid sunlight exposure.2,3

The HPV vaccine is recommended for young people with lupus to help prevent cervical cancer in females, and genital and throat cancer in males. The vaccine is most effective when given while the person with lupus is taking low doses of steroids.5

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Written by: Jessica Johns Pool | Last reviewed: January 2020