Purpose of review
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) has been recognized as a risk factor for cancer mainly through hypoxia, based on studies that did not distinguish among cancer types. The purpose of this review is to discuss the most recent data on epidemiology and pathophysiology of the OSA–cancer association.
According to epidemiological studies, OSA may have different influences on each type of cancer, either increasing or decreasing its incidence and aggressiveness. Time spent with oxygen saturation below 90% appears the polysomnographic variable most strongly associated with unfavorable effects on cancer. Experimental studies support the role of hypoxia as an important risk factor for cancer growth and aggressiveness, especially when it shows an intermittent pattern. These effects are largely mediated by the hypoxia-inducible factor, which controls the synthesis of molecules with effects on inflammation, immune surveillance and cell proliferation. Sleep fragmentation participates in increasing cancer risk. Modulating effects of age remain controversial.
Effects of OSA on cancer may largely vary among neoplastic diseases, both in their magnitude and direction. The worse risk associated with intermittent rather than persistent hypoxia, and the effects of OSA therapy on cancer natural history are still poorly known, and deserve new careful studies.