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The Link Between Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lymphoma

Having RA increases the risk of lymphoma. But for most, that risk appears quite small.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

In the spring of 2006, Dora Burke finished her first triathlon with competitive results. When her ankle started hurting soon afterward, she chalked it up to the tough race. But in little over a month, this normally healthy, active mom in her 30s could barely move. Without warning, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) had rapidly and fiercely attacked nearly every joint in her body.

"The pain went from one body part, to four body parts," Burke says. "Then pretty immediately it went to the point where I couldn't lie down or walk or pick up my second child, who was 10 months old at the time. By the time I went to see the rheumatologist, I was completely disabled."

Burke approached the disease with courage and determination. And she remained admirably levelheaded about the risks of RA and its treatments.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a type of autoimmune disorder. With RA, the immune system attacks the body's own tissues, leading to chronic inflammation. An autoimmune disorder also leaves a person vulnerable to infections as well as a host of other medical conditions.

"My immune system is compromised at this point,” Burke tells WebMD. “I know now that I am at a heightened risk for a lot of things."

One disease that Burke is now at a higher risk for is lymphoma. That's a type of cancer that starts in the body's lymphatic system and interferes with the body's ability to make healthy blood cells. Several studies, including a 2008 review of the literature, have indicated that people with RA are two to three times more likely to develop lymphoma than people without RA.

RA and Lymphoma: Measuring the Risk

"The link between RA and lymphoma is very well known,” says John Sweetenham, MD. “However, lymphomas are relatively uncommon, so it's been difficult to figure out exactly how big the increased risk is." Sweetenham is director of clinical research for the Taussig Cancer Institute at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

"The vast majority of people who have rheumatoid arthritis are never going to have this complication," says Sweetenham, who has treated patients with both conditions.

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