By Charles Kravitz, DDS

We know that men are more at risk of developing sleep apnea. But for women who suffer from OSA the risk of developing cancer is more than your male counterparts, says a recent research published in the European Respiratory Journal. The scientists collected data of 20,000 patients with OSA. It was found that a large percent of these patients were later diagnosed with cancer.


The studies show that people suffering from sleep-disordered breathing have an increased risk of developing cancer and are up to five times more likely to die from the disease.
Once again the culprit is HYPOXIA. The lack of oxygen (hypoxia) caused by untreated Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) can be a catalyst for a process called neovascularization (the creation of new blood vessels), giving a blood supply that can encourage tumor growth.
 Two of the key hormones that fall out of balance—cortisol and melatonin—are critical for maintaining a healthy immune system (cortisol) and for regulating the body’s circadian system (melatonin). In addition, this neurochemical balance can lead to body-wide (systemic) inflammation.

How does this relate to cancer?
Without a healthy immune system, the body can struggle to fight off the aggressive cellular behaviors that can lead to tumors. 
With an imbalance in circadian rhythms as the result of decreased melatonin, the body produces higher amounts of other substances that are risk factors for cancer (for women, higher estrogen can lead to breast cancer, and for men, higher estrogen can lead to prostate, bowel, lung, and bladder cancer). 

Systemic inflammation causes oxidative stress to the organs. Oxidation is a breakdown of tissues that is the consequence of long-term inflammation; oxidative stress refers to the damage that results from unchecked systemic inflammation, which makes it easier for cancer—an opportunistic disease—to establish itself wherever the body is most vulnerable.
Cancer cells thrive in a low oxygen environment. Hospitals will put a patient on oxygen if their O2 levels drop below 92. Untreated OSA can cause oxygen levels to drop anywhere from the 90’s, 80’s and even in the 50’s.

Sleep apnea causes sustained low blood oxygen.

One of the biggest problems with sleep apnea is the way in which it deprives the body of necessary oxygen. Frequent apneas (pauses in breathing that last at least 10 seconds, but often last much longer) lead to nocturnal intermittent hypoxia. Dentists perform exams of  patient’s mouth, neck, and airway on a regular basis while screening for oral cancer. These health screenings are important, lifesaving moments in a patient’s health journey– we can do that with a similarly deadly condition like untreated sleep apnea.

Detecting OSA and leading the way for treatment can add YEARS to a  patient’s lifespan while significantly improving quality of life. Both cancer and OSA have symptoms that can be easily recognized in the chair during a regular checkup. While checking the mouth for masses and swelling, you can also check on the Mallampati score  and be alert to possible concerns you may have. 
Sources: American Sleep Apnea Association, Centers for Disease Control, Mayo Clinic, National Institutes of Health, National Sleep Foundation, The New York Times, Wisconsin Cohort Study, World Health Organization

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