Risk of second primary cancers after a diagnosis of first primary cancer: A pan-cancer analysis and Mendelian randomization study

Elife. 2023 Nov 2:12:e86379. doi: 10.7554/eLife.86379.


Background: The risk of second primary cancers (SPC) is increasing after the first primary cancers (FPC) are diagnosed and treated. The underlying causal relationship remains unclear.

Methods: We conducted a pan-cancer association (26 cancers) study in the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database (non-Hispanic whites). The standardized incidence ratio (SIR) was estimated as the risk of SPCs in cancer survivors based on the incidence in the general population. Furthermore, the causal effect was evaluated by two-sample Mendelian Randomization (MR, 13 FPCs) in the UK Biobank (UKB, n=459,136,, European whites) and robust analysis (radial MR and Causal Analysis Using Summary Effect estimates, CAUSE).

Results: We found 11 significant cross-correlations among different cancers after harmonizing SIR and MR results. Whereas only 4 of them were confirmed by MR to have a robust causal relationship. In particular, patients initially diagnosed with oral pharyngeal cancer would have an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (SIRSEER = 1.18, 95%Confidence Interval [CI]:1.05-1.31, ORradial-MR=1.21, 95% CI:1.13-1.30, p=6.00 × 10-3; ORcause = 1.17, 95% CI:1.05-1.31, p=8.90 × 10-3). Meanwhile, ovary cancer was identified to be a risk factor for soft tissue cancer (SIRSEER = 1.72, 95%Confidence Interval [CI]:1.08-2.60, ORradial-MR=1.39, 95% CI:1.22-1.58, p=1.07 × 10-3; ORcause = 1.36, 95% CI:1.16-1.58, p=0.01). And kidney cancer was likely to cause the development of lung cancer (SIRSEER = 1.28, 95%Confidence Interval [CI]:1.22-1.35, ORradial-MR=1.17, 95% CI:1.08-1.27, p=6.60 × 10-3; ORcause = 1.16, 95% CI:1.02-1.31, p=0.05) and myeloma (SIRSEER = 1.54, 95%Confidence Interval [CI]:1.33-1.78, ORradial-MR=1.72, 95% CI:1.21-2.45, p=0.02; ORcause = 1.49, 95% CI:1.04-2.34, p=0.02).

Conclusions: A certain type of primary cancer may cause another second primary cancer, and the profound mechanisms need to be studied in the future.

Funding: This work was in supported by grants from National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 81972645), Innovative research team of high-level local universities in Shanghai, Shanghai Youth Talent Support Program, intramural grant of The University of Hong Kong to Dr. Rong Na, and Shanghai Sailing Program (22YF1440500) to Dr. Da Huang.

Keywords: First primary cancer; Mendelian randomization; cancer biology; epidemiology; global health; human; second primary cancer.

Plain language summary

Better cancer treatment and early detection have increased survival rates among patients with cancer. But some cancer survivors can develop a second cancer called a second primary cancer. Second primary cancers may occur months or years after successful treatment of the primary cancer. They are not caused by the spread of the original tumor like a cancer metastasis. Instead, they appear to occur independently in another location or tissue. Scientists are trying to understand what causes second primary cancers. Genetics, lifestyle, the environment, treatments used for the initial tumor, or other factors may all contribute to individuals developing a second cancer. Learning more about who is at risk of developing a second cancer and why, may lead to new prevention, treatment or screening strategies. Ruan, Huang et al. found that people with some primary cancers have an increased risk of secondary primary cancers in specific tissues. The researchers first looked at the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database that tracks US cancer patients to see if different types of cancers were more likely to lead to a second primary cancer. Then, the team conducted a comprehensive analysis for a causal relationship in a second extensive health database, the UK Biobank, to determine if the primary cancers may have caused the second primary cancer. The study showed that patients diagnosed with mouth or throat cancers were at increased risk of later developing a lymph node cancer called non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Patients diagnosed with ovarian cancer were at increased risk of later developing cancer in one of the body's soft tissues. Kidney cancer is likely the cause of later lung cancers and a type of blood cancer called myeloma. Understanding the relationships between an initial and later cancer diagnosis is essential to improve cancer survivors' care. It is especially important for patients diagnosed early in life. More studies are needed to confirm the links Ruan, Huang et al. identified and to understand the mechanism. If more studies confirm the associations, physicians may want to screen survivors for specific cancers. Scientists may also be able to use the information to develop new strategies to help prevent or treat secondary primary cancers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • China
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Kidney Neoplasms*
  • Lung Neoplasms*
  • Mendelian Randomization Analysis
  • Neoplasms, Second Primary* / epidemiology
  • Neoplasms, Second Primary* / genetics

Grants and funding

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.