People with lupus — a chronic autoimmune disease that impacts the skin, joints, and organs — have a higher than average risk of developing 16 types of cancer, according to a new analysis published in the journal Arthritis Research & Therapy. The researchers determined that lupus patients are more likely to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and multiple myeloma, as well as cancer of the cervix, vagina/vulva, kidneys, bladder, esophagus, stomach, liver, lung, pharynx, larynx, thyroid, and skin (non-melanoma).
Although this sounds alarming, it’s not exactly new information. These findings were derived from a summary of 24 previously published studies, and rheumatologists have long known about the connection between autoimmune disease and cancer.
“The lupus community is already aware of the increased cancer risk and diligently screens for cancers as part of routine care,” Anca D. Askanase, MD, MPH, director of the Lupus Center at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, told the Lupus Foundation of America. “The study results are not novel nor unexpected, just more precise. There is no need to re-evaluate the long-term cancer surveillance practices nor reassess current treatment regimens in lupus patients.”
Interestingly, the study found that having lupus does not seem to raise the risk of breast, uterine, ovarian, pancreatic, colorectal, or brain cancer — and lupus appears to be linked to a lower risk of prostate cancer and melanoma.
In recent years, the life expectancy for people with lupus has improved dramatically. In fact, the overwhelming majority of patients (80 to 90 percent) will have a normal lifespan, provided they stay on top of their treatment.
Of course, researchers and doctors are always looking for ways to improve the odds even further. “Despite their increased life expectancy, [people with lupus] still have two- to five-times the risk of [premature] death compared with the general population, not only for all-cause mortality but also for mortality from cancer,” the study authors wrote. “As a result, more attention should be paid to the risks of cancer development in patients with [lupus].”
If you have lupus, your doctor should already be recommending earlier or more frequent screenings for various types of cancer. Assuming that’s been happening — and if not, bring it up at your next appointment — there’s probably no reason to do anything differently based on this study’s findings.