7 Ways Arthritis May Lead to Cancer

It may not seem like arthritis and cancer have much to do with each other, one being a chronic inflammation of the joints and the other an unchecked spread of malignant cells. However, emerging research has found that people with arthritis, especially rheumatoid arthritis, are at a greater risk for certain types of cancer. Interestingly, the risk seems to be highest within the first few years after diagnosis.

To add a greater level of nuance, study results reveal that people with RA may actually be less likely to develop certain types of cancer. But when they do get those forms of cancer, both the symptoms and the prognosis tend to be worse.

Specifically, the overall risk for breast, gastrointestinal, liver, and colon cancers is lower in people with RA. Unfortunately, the death rate for people with RA and these forms of cancer is significantly higher.

Experts suspect that the connection has to do with several factors, including genetics, lifestyle, and use of medications for arthritis. Some factors you can control and others you can’t. To help you do what you can and not worry about the rest, we have broken down 7 ways that arthritis may lead to cancer. Several of these paths can be avoided purely by personal initiative, but #6 requires a partner in health and may be tougher to conquer.

1. Medications

How’s this for a kick in the teeth? It turns out that some medications used to treat rheumatoid arthritis increase your cancer risk. Similarly, certain meds used to treat cancer can cause arthritis. There are even a couple of drugs that are used to treat both conditions!

Some of the drugs in question are NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories), Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF) meds, and corticosteroid injections. DMARDs (disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs) have been linked to cancers of the bladder and urinary tract, as well as lymphoma, leukemia, and multiple myeloma. There is some debate about this link, but be sure to ask your doctor about an increased cancer risk before starting any new arthritis medication.

2. Diet

A high fat diet is linked directly to an unhealthy gut biome. Normally, we harbor a balance of good and bad bacteria in our digestive systems. When the bad bacteria are allowed to proliferate too much, we get sick. When we have a strong population of good bacteria, everything about our digestion and use of fuel just works better. Researchers are now discovering that a chronically unhealthy gut biome can incite both arthritis and cancer.

To achieve a better balance, feed your good bacteria on a variety of prebiotic foods. These are things like garlic, onions, bananas, apples, artichokes, and asparagus. They contain a type of resistant starch that is not directly digested by our bodies but instead feeds good bacteria and allows it to thrive over the bad stuff.

3. Lifestyle

Dependence on alcohol and/or tobacco is a habit that can spark inflammation, the root source of pain behind arthritis, and cause cancer. The connection between tobacco use and cancer has been well understood for a long time, of course, but it is also a factor in the development and treatment of arthritis. Smoking will damage joints, connective tissue, and bones as long as you keep doing it. Tobacco also causes medications used to treat arthritis to be less effective.

People who consume alcohol on a regular basis are at a greater risk for cancer of the mouth, throat, stomach, liver, and colorectal system. Drinking alcohol is also more likely to trigger gout, which is a form of arthritis that involves the formation of hard crystals in the joints. A good rule of thumb is to stick to one glass of alcohol per day for women and two for men.

4. Immune Response

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder in which the body mistakenly perceives its own healthy tissue as a dangerous invader. In an attempt at healing, your immune system attacks those tissues. It is a useful system if the tissue really is dangerous, but when it comes to RA, this is a case of mistaken identity.

With rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system doesn’t stop at the joints but also attacks the heart, eyes, bones, lungs, and skin. This erroneous immune response has been directly linked to skin cancer, but damaged cells in general are also vulnerable to other types of cancer.

5. Reduced Activity

When your joints hurt, you may hesitate to move around as much as usual. If your arthritis pain leads you to skip workouts, your cardiovascular health will decline. Weight gain may also occur, which only puts further strain on joints and leads to more inflammation. If you allow the pain to lead into a sedentary lifestyle, this opens the door for cancer.

It is actually when you’ve been still the longest that your joints are the stiffest. Therefore, you must keep moving on a regular basis to limit the impact of an arthritis diagnosis on your overall health.

6. Misdiagnosis

Another potential worry is that your arthritis was misdiagnosed in the first place. Certain cancers, especially those that occur in the bones, can cause joint pain. However, this possibility may be overlooked if you have multiple risk factors for arthritis. Help your doctor diagnose you correctly by keeping a detailed journal of all your symptoms.

You may also need to advocate strongly for yourself if you feel that an arthritis diagnosis was incorrect. Unfortunately, overweight people often get biased care from medical professionals. Doctors tend to attribute every bodily issue to weight without digging deeper, but you know yourself best. While obesity is a risk factor for various diseases, it cannot accurately be assumed to cause anything and everything.

7. Inflammation

Inflammation is generally the source of pain for people with arthritis. It is an immune response that attempts to isolate a damaged part of the body from healthy portions.

It can be useful in certain circumstances, such as a localized infection, but becomes harmful when it’s chronic and needless. Over time, chronic inflammation can cause DNA damage and lead to cancer.


If you have received an arthritis diagnosis, it is important to understand that the disease, which has no cure, can be a stepping stone to other more dangerous conditions. Cancer seeks out weak spots in the body, especially cells that have been damaged by chronic inflammation, and takes hold there.

But just because there is no cure does not mean that nothing can be done. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet full of fresh vegetables and fruits can make a huge difference, not only in your comfort level, but also in the health of your digestive system.

Staying active and using an ice-and-heat regimen can reduce stiffness and pain. You may ultimately need a prescription from your doctor for arthritis medication, but with attention to employing natural remedies first, you can reduce the amount you take.

Arthritis sufferers are, unfortunately, at a greater risk for dying from cancer. But you don’t have to be a statistic if you’re willing to make some lifestyle changes now.