Rheumatoid arthritis and the risk of malignancy

Arthritis Rheum. 1997 Sep;40(9):1580-6. doi: 10.1002/art.1780400906.


Objective: To determine the relative risks of malignancy and of site-specific malignancies in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

Methods: In a prospective cohort study, 862 patients with RA (96% white) were enrolled from 1966 to 1974 and were followed up for up to 35 years (mean 17.4 years) at the University of Saskatchewan Rheumatic Disease Unit. All diagnoses of cancer were cross-referenced with the Provincial Cancer Registry. Expected cancer incidence rates were determined based on province of Saskatchewan population statistics matched to each study patient for age, sex, and calendar year. Standardized incidence ratios (SIRs) of the observed-to-expected cancer incidence and 95% confidence intervals (95% CI) were then calculated.

Results: A total of 136 cases of cancer were observed compared with 168 expected (SIR 0.80, P = 0.011 [95% CI 0.67-0.95]). The relative risk of colorectal malignancy was significantly reduced in the RA study population (SIR 0.52, P = 0.037 [95% CI 0.25-0.96]). A significant excess of leukemia was found (SIR 2.47, P = 0.026 [95% CI 1.12-4.69]), whereas the incidence rates for Hodgkin's disease and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and all other site-specific malignancies were not found to be significantly different from general population rates.

Conclusion: In our cohort of RA patients, colorectal cancer was detected in only half the expected number of patients. This risk reduction may be related to long-term nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drug (NSAID) use in RA, as has been suggested in several other studies of long-term NSAID use. An increased risk of leukemia was confirmed. This may be due to the persistent immune stimulation associated with RA itself, since other potential explanatory factors for increased leukemia were not apparent. Despite the excess of hemopoietic malignancy and despite treatment of RA with potentially oncogenic agents, the overall risk of malignancy was reduced in this RA cohort.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / therapeutic use
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / complications*
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / drug therapy
  • Canada / epidemiology
  • Cohort Studies
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / etiology
  • Demography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Leukemia / epidemiology
  • Leukemia / etiology
  • Life Style
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal