Hidradenitis suppurativa (HS), also called acne inversa, is a chronic inflammatory skin condition. It affects as many as 4 percent of people worldwide. HS causes recurrent painful bumps and scars in the armpits, groin, skin folds, and more. HS can also increase your risk of developing certain cancers.
Many diseases can occur alongside HS — including cancer. Over the past 20 years, research has consistently found a link between HS and nonmelanoma skin cancers, including squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).
SCC is the second most common type of skin cancer. HS can also lead to basal cell carcinoma, the most common skin cancer. SCC is a rare complication of HS, but it can spread throughout the body and can be deadly.
Many case reports of SCC developing from HS lesions have been published. SCC with HS occurs in men more than women. SCC usually occurs in HS lesions on the buttocks, groin, and perineum. Cases of SCC almost always occur in people who have had HS for many years and who have not been able to manage their symptoms well.
Tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha is a compound produced by the body that contributes to inflammation. TNF-alpha inhibitors — or biologics — treat inflammatory diseases, including HS, inflammatory bowel disease, and inflammatory arthritis.
TNF-alpha inhibitors may increase the risk of certain cancers, including nonmelanoma skin cancer (e.g., SCC). TNF-alpha inhibitors include:
Some studies have not found a link between these drugs and increased cancer risk, but they did not focus on people with HS. Case reports have shown that some people with HS treated with TNF-alpha inhibitors have developed SCC. These reported cases have involved men with a history of HS for 20 years or more.
Recent research has shown a likely association between nonmelanoma skin cancer and TNF-alpha inhibitors used to treat skin diseases, including HS and psoriasis.
Surgery is the primary treatment for SCC. Early SCC can be treated with minor excisions (similar to skin biopsies) or cryotherapy. More advanced SCC may need more extensive surgery. Depending on the size of the cancer and whether it has metastasized (spread to other organs or parts of the body), radiation and targeted therapy may be used.
HS has also been linked to increased risk of other cancers besides SCC. Studies have found statistically significant increases in rates of lymphoma (a type of blood cancer) and other cancers, including cancers of the mouth and throat, central nervous system, liver, and colon.
However, some researchers have argued that the risk of developing these cancers is so low that it is not clinically significant.
Researchers don’t understand fully how HS increases cancer risk. It is believed to be due to chronic inflammation, a known risk factor for cancer. Acute inflammation is part of the body’s normal response to injury or disease. Some conditions — like HS — can cause chronic, recurrent inflammation without an injury or disease.
In some situations, chronic inflammation can contribute to cancer risk. Over time, chronic inflammation damages healthy tissue and causes cellular damage that can lead to cancer.
It is important to know the signs and symptoms of cancer, especially if you are at higher risk of developing cancer. It is also important to note that although HS can increase your statistical odds of developing cancer, the risk of developing most types of cancer is still low.
In addition to HS, having other autoimmune or autoinflammatory diseases can increase your risk of cancer. If you have had cancer in the past, you may be at greater risk of cancer due to recurrence or a second cancer. Having a family history of certain cancers can also increase your cancer risk.
Many types of cancer share similar symptoms. General signs and symptoms of cancer can include:
These symptoms are not specific to cancer; they can be caused by many conditions. Always seek medical attention for any unexplained changes to your body or your health.
SCC and basal cell carcinoma have many similar symptoms, including:
If you have any of these symptoms, see a doctor — especially if they occur on or near HS lesions.
You can take many steps to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer and other cancers.
Some of the most important steps you can take to avoid SCC with HS include:
To prevent cancer in general:
Hidradenitis suppurativa can be stressful even without an increased risk of skin cancer. You shouldn’t take the risk of skin cancer from HS lightly, but don’t let it fill you with dread or fear either.
Know the signs and symptoms of skin cancer. More importantly, do your best to get your HS symptoms under control. If you are not getting the care you need for your HS, find a doctor or other health care professional with experience treating HS.
You are not alone — you are part of a community whose members can help each other by sharing both positive and negative experiences with HS.
On myHSTeam, the social network for people with hidradenitis suppurativa and their loved ones, more than 26,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with HS.
Are you living with HS? Have you talked about your skin cancer risk with your health care team? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.