The link between sleep apnea and cancer is less clear than that between sleep apnea and other risks like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. But as we are coming to understand the mechanisms that bind the two conditions, it seems likely that sleep apnea can increase cancer risks. Even if it may not increase your risk for developing cancer, new research suggests that it can drive cancer to grow more quickly.

Sleep apnea could drive cancer growth

Hypoxia Drives Blood Vessel Growth

All the cells in your body depend on blood to bring nutrients and take away waste, but cancer is especially dependent on it. Cancer cells grow and reproduce at abnormally fast rates, and this abnormally high growth requires abnormally high rates of nutrients. To get these nutrients, tumors require that your body grow many more blood vessels to support them.

One of the tools that the body uses to boost the growth of blood vessels is vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). Some recent cancer treatments have shown promise because they block VEGF, starving tumors and preventing them from growing.

But sleep apnea, it seems, does the opposite. As your body experiences intermittent hypoxias (oxygen shortages), it releases more VEGF. This VEGF stimulates the growth of more blood vessels in tumors. Researchers presented their findings that mice exposed to oxygen shortages had higher levels of VEGF than unexposed mice. They also found that exposing tumors to oxygen shortages caused them to grow blood vessels more rapidly, which could make them harder to stop.

Oxygen Deprivation Affects Your Entire Body

We often talk about the effect of sleep apnea on particular organs or mechanisms in your body, such as the brain or the heart, but studies like this remind us that sleep apnea affects your entire body at the same time.

When your body experiences oxygen deprivation, it can hurt your body on a cellular level. And as oxygen becomes a more limited resource, it triggers cancer to become more greedy, eating up more of the limited resources, which can further hurt your body as oxygen levels drop.

We don’t have enough evidence to show how sleep apnea treatment impacts the growth of cancers, but it’s likely that with better oxygen supply, cancer growth would be slowed.

If you would like to learn more about the benefits of sleep apnea treatment, or get sleep apnea treatment that’s easier to manage than CPAP, please call (402) 493-4175 for an appointment with a sleep dentist at the Advanced Dental Sleep Treatment Center.