A serious sleep disorder, sleep apnea affects an estimated 22 million Americans, many of whom don’t even realize they have it. What’s more, of those with sleep apnea, nearly 80 percent have what is considered moderate to severe sleep apnea, and most of those cases are considered obstructive sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the affected person lies down and pressure on their throat causes a blockage that prevents breathing. This can cause the affected person to wake repeatedly, toss and turn, and stop and restart breathing throughout the night. Persons with moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea often wake feeling tired and remain sluggish and fatigued throughout the day. But now, a recent study from the May 20 issue of the European Respiratory Journal has presented more bad news for sufferers of obstructive sleep apnea, and doctors are hoping patients pay attention.

The report, which follows a study by Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, found that women who suffer from severe obstructive sleep apnea are more likely than their male counterparts, and those without severe obstructive sleep apnea, to develop cancer.

“The study did not specify a type of cancer these patients are at an increased risk of developing,” says Dr. Allison Lesko, a dentist who treats sleep apnea in her Fort Collins, Colorado, practice. “Just that patients with severe obstructive sleep apnea are at an increased risk of developing any cancer.”

That’s because researchers theorize that low blood oxygen levels caused by the obstructive breathing may encourage the growth of certain types of cancers.
But don’t panic just yet, says Lesko. There is help.

“If you have sleep apnea, or you or a partner thinks you may have sleep apnea, you owe it to yourself to get evaluated by a dentist or doctor who specializes in sleep apnea treatment,” Lesko says.

Lesko says treatment is easier than many people realize.

“There are many different types of sleep apnea therapy,” she says. “You may have already heard of continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, therapy, which constantly ventilates air into your airways as you sleep. But there are also other options such as sleep orthotics your dentist can customize for you that reposition the jaw and essentially prop the airway open.”

According to Lesko, these treatments can help keep your oxygen levels high and hopefully reduce your risk of developing those cancers identified in the study.

“The researchers were not able to definitively say whether or not sleep apnea was responsible for the cancer, but just knowing the risk could be there will hopefully be motivation enough to seek treatment,” she says.