Why It's So Important to Know Your Cancer Risk if You Have Psoriasis

Some risk factors for cancer, like smoking, are well known, but others are still being discovered. Now, a new report has found that having psoriasis—the autoimmune condition that causes thick, red, scaly skin patches to grow—just might increase your risk of developing several types of cancer.

That’s the major takeaway from a systematic review and meta analysis recently published in JAMA Dermatology.  For the report, researchers from the University of Manchester analyzed data from 58 studies and found that people with psoriasis had an 18 percent higher risk of developing cancer than those who don’t have the autoimmune disease. People with severe forms of psoriasis had a 22 percent greater risk of developing cancer.

The review also broke out risk by different forms of cancer and found that severe psoriasis was linked with a more than 11 times higher risk for squamous cell carcinoma (a common form of skin cancer), double the risk for esophageal and liver cancer, and a 45 percent increased risk for pancreatic cancer. People with any degree of psoriasis were also at an increased risk for colorectal cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and cancers of the kidney and pancreas.

While it's not entirely clear why there's a link between psoriasis and those cancers, researchers have a few theories, the study's lead author, Alex M. Trafford of the University of Manchester, tells Health. First and foremost: That psoriasis causes chronic inflammation in the body, which has been linked to cancer, he points out.

Certain treatments used for psoriasis might also increase a person’s risk, Trafford says. “Beyond chronic inflammation, it has also been suggested that therapies used in psoriasis treatment, such as phototherapy and immunosuppressants, may play a role in increased cancer risk,” he says.

Other studies have also found that people with psoriasis are more likely to be smokers, drink alcohol, and be obese, Trafford says—and these also can raise your risk of developing cancer.

What should you do if you have psoriasis?

First, don't panic. “I have psoriasis and I’m not alarmed by the findings of the study,” says study co-author Evangelos Kontopantelis, PhD, a professor at the University of Manchester. While having psoriasis can increase your risk of cancer, and especially certain types of cancer, it’s important to factor in your risk of developing cancer outside of psoriasis. “An increase in risk doesn’t tell us much unless we consider the baseline risk,” Kontopantelis says. “You need to try to control the risk factors you have control over.”

It’s worth talking over your treatment plan with your doctor. “These results give further support to the notion of a holistic approach to psoriasis care, including lifestyle behavior change,” he says. But, Kontopantelis says, if your existing treatment plan is working for you and giving you a good quality of life, you may want to keep doing what you’re doing. “It’s a balancing act,” he says.

Ultimately, the researchers stress that there’s a lot that goes into cancer risk, and that there is plenty you can do to lower your risk, even if you have psoriasis. “We found lower cancer risk in studies that took lifestyle factors, such as smoking and obesity, into account,” Trafford says. “This provides some evidence to suggest that, as with people without psoriasis, making healthy lifestyle changes might lower the risk of cancer.”

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