Does AS Cause Cancer?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2019 | Last updated: June 2021

People with ankylosing spondylitis (AS) have an increased risk of developing cancer. Researchers believe that the higher levels of chronic inflammation in the body that occur in conditions like AS create circumstances that may trigger cancer to grow.1 In addition, some medications (like biologics) used to treat AS may increase the risk of certain cancers.2

How does AS increase cancer risk?

Cancer is a general term that encompasses several different related diseases. Cancers are named for the type of cell or organ of the body in which they develop. All cells in the body grow and divide, and older or damaged cells are replaced with new ones. However, when cancer occurs, the cancerous cells don't stop dividing and invade healthy tissue. Cancer develops when damage to the genetic material (mutations) in the cells cause the cells to rapidly divide and spread. The damage to the genes may be inherited (passed from parent to child) or may be the result of exposure to certain conditions or substances in the environment. As cancer continues to grow, it can spread from its original location to other parts of the body through the bloodstream and the lymphatic system.3

How common is cancer among people with AS?

The risk of developing cancer is higher in people with AS than in the general population, although research studies vary on how much higher that risk is. One meta-analysis (a study that combines data from many other studies) from 2016 that reviewed 23 previous studies on people with AS found that AS was associated with a 14 percent increased risk for cancer.4

What types of cancer are more commonly diagnosed in people with AS?

Different research studies have found various types of cancer to be more common among people with AS, including1,4,5:

  • Cancers of the digestive tract, including colon cancer, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, and cancer of the stomach or small intestine
  • Multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer that develops in the plasma cells in the bone marrow
  • Lymphoma, a type of blood cancer that develops from the white blood cells called lymphocytes
  • Prostate cancer

What other characteristics increase the risk of cancer?

Risk factors are identified characteristics that can potentially increase a person's likelihood of developing a condition. However, having one or more risk factors does not guarantee a person will develop the condition. Risk factors that have been associated with cancer include exposure to certain chemicals or behaviors, as well as characteristics that cannot be controlled, such as family history and aging.6
Common risk factors that increase the risk of multiple types of cancer include6:

  • Growing older
  • Drinking alcohol, with the risk increasing with more consumption
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Sun exposure
  • Obesity
  • Exposure to radiation

What cancer screenings should people with AS get?

Cancer screenings are tests done when there aren't any symptoms in order to detect cancer at an early stage. Because of the increased risk of cancer, people with AS should have see their doctor regularly and be screened for cancer. When cancer is diagnosed in its earliest stages, it is most treatable. Screenings for cancer may include7:

Each individual should discuss with their doctor their personal history, family history, and other risk factors to determine what screening tools and their frequency is best for them.

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