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The association between some types of cancer and sleep apnoea

Posted by Blooms The Chemist on 8 May 2023

The association between some types of cancer and sleep apnoea

It’s widely understood that if you have obstructive sleep apnoea, it can put extra pressure on your heart and more.

However, new research has found that obstructive sleep apnoea patients are more likely to be at increased risk for cancer development, with some researchers believing that the cause is low blood oxygen levels1.

We explore what types of cancer is linked to sleep apnoea.

How is cancer associated with obstructive sleep apnoea?

A study presented to the European Respiratory Society showed that oxygen deprivation while sleeping due to obstructive sleep apnoea is independently associated with cancer.

Dr Andreas Palm, a researcher and senior consultant at Uppsala University, Sweden, who presented the study, said: “It is known already that patients with obstructive sleep apnoea have an increased risk of cancer but it has not been clear whether or not this is due to the OSA itself or to related risk factors for cancer, such as obesity, cardiometabolic disease and lifestyle factors. Our findings show that oxygen deprivation due to OSA is independently associated with cancer.”

Palm’s study focused on data from 62,811 patients in Sweden five years prior to the start of treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea2.

However, Palm has been quick to say that external testing for cancer is “not justified or warranted” for all patients with sleep apnoea.

“The findings in this study highlight the need to consider untreated sleep apnoea as a risk factor for cancer and for doctors to be aware of the possibility of cancer when treating patients with OSA. However, extending screening for cancer to all OSA patients is not justified or recommended by our study results.”

It’s also important to note that this study focused on data from one point in time and does not show that sleep apnoea causes cancer.

The study only shows that cancer is associated with obstructive sleep apnoea2.

The difference between cause and association is that cause means that one thing is directly responsible for another. An association means that certain aspects of a situation can lead to an outcome, but not necessarily cause it.

A good example of a cause and association is that if you cut yourself, you bleed. That’s a cause. However, an association is that you MAY get an infection depending on the situation, but not always.

What type of cancers may be linked to sleep apnoea?

A study of nearly 34,000 people showed that some types of cancer are more likely to appear in people who have sleep apnoea than those who don’t3.

Some of these cancers included:

  • Kidney

  • Lung

  • Smoking-related

  • Bowel

First author on the sleep apnoea research, Tetyana Kendzerska, MD, PhD, associate scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and assistant professor, Division of Respirology, University of Ottawa said “I believe our results are conclusive given that they are based on about 30,000 adults free of cancer at baseline, more than 2,000 of whom developed cancer.”3 

What are some risk factors that may link sleep apnoea and cancer?

Obstructive sleep apnoea and cancer have some overlapping risk factors, including4:

  • A family history of the disease

  • Obesity

  • Smoking

  • Alcohol use

This means that some of your risk factors can be reduced, including if you stop smoking, lose weight and stop drinking alcohol to excess.

However, it’s important to work with your doctor or healthcare professional before you make any changes to your current lifestyle or diet.

If you want more information about sleep apnoea, sleep health and more, please explore our Sleep Health Hub.


1Havard Health Publishing, How does sleep apnea affect the heart? Accessed 19 April 2023

2European Respiratory Society, Obstructive sleep apnoea linked to increased risk of cancer, a decline in mental processing powers and an increased risk of blood clots, accessed 19 April 2023

3American Thoracic Society, Some Cancers May Be Related to Sleep Apnea, accessed 19 April 2023

4US National Library of Medicine, Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Incident Cancer: A Large Retrospective Multicenter Clinical Cohort Study, accessed 19 April 2023