4 Popular Medications That Spike Your Cancer Risk, According to Doctors

Studies show that these drugs could have dangerous, long-term side effects.

Many medications can be extremely useful, from easing discomfort to saving lives. But shortages and recalls can cause concern, leading people to look for alternatives to swap out with their prescribed meds. At the same time, an enormous segment of the population uses prescription medication—about 66 percent of adults in the United States. Speaking to your doctor about the risks of certain drugs, and weighing them along with the benefits, can help you make informed decisions.

Another type of important data to collect is about healthy habits versus the ones that may be increasing your risk of cancer. Are you using sunscreen and eating a healthy diet? Did you know drinking coffee can help prevent a certain type of the disease? These are some of the factors to consider when thinking about your overall wellness. Making sure your medication is the right fit for you—and as risk-free as possible—is another important component in cancer prevention. Read on to find out about four drugs that may increase your cancer risk.

READ THIS NEXT: This Common Medication Could Be Hurting Your Brain, New Study Says.

Blood pressure medications

ECG test and pills spilling out of a container.

Blood pressure drugs can be very effective at controlling hypertension. "The benefits of blood pressure medicines are clear: Blood pressure medicines can help you keep your blood pressure at healthy levels and therefore greatly reduce your risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke," says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "In general, the risks of taking blood pressure medicines are low."

However, Sony Sherpa, MD, warns that angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) used treat hypertension "were found to contain intolerable levels of NDMA, which is a potential carcinogen." And blood pressure medications that contain hydrochlorothiazide have been linked to a higher risk of skin cancer, reports the Mayo Clinic. "Researchers speculate this happens because hydrochlorothiazide makes the skin more sensitive to the sun," says the site, which adds that additional research into the possible dangers is needed.

Proton pump inhibitors

Woman in blue shirt pouring supplements in white bottle into hand.
Shutterstock / An Mazhor

Different heartburn medicines can have different potential risks. "Zantac is the go-to drug for many [people] to treat heartburn," says Sherpa. "Aside from the main components of the drug, Zantac also has impurities, like NDMA [a potentially carcinogenic, nitrosamine impurity] that heighten your risk of developing cancer."

Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are available in both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) form. According to MedlinePlus, they are used to treat various gastrointestinal problems such as acid reflux or stomach ulcers; some commonly known PPIs include Prevacid and Prilosec. "Because PPIs such as omeprazole are potent gastric acid suppressants [they] may increase the risk of gastric cancer by causing atrophy (thinning) of the stomach lining, elevating levels of a hormone called gastrin, and an overgrowth of bacteria in the stomach," according to Drugs.com.

"Several studies have shown an association between PPI use and gastric cancer," Mark H. Ebell, MD, MS wrote in an article published by American Family Physician. Ebell recommended that "Physicians initiating antacid therapy should begin with a histamine H2 receptor antagonist and, if prescribing a PPI, should use the lowest dose and duration possible."

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Diabetes drugs

Woman taking supplement pills

In Aug. 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a statement about another nitrosamine impurity, Nitroso-STG-19 (known as NTTP) that had been found in some samples of sitagliptin (a drug used for treating Type 2 diabetes mellitus). "NTTP belongs to the nitrosamine class of compounds, some of which are classified as probable or possible human carcinogens (substances that could cause cancer), based on laboratory tests," stated the FDA. However, "To avoid a shortage and help ensure patients have access to an adequate supply of the medicine, FDA will not object to the temporary distribution of sitagliptin containing NTTP above the acceptable intake limit."

"It could be dangerous for patients with this condition to stop taking their sitagliptin without first talking to their health care professional," warned the FDA, which recommended that "prescribers continue to use sitagliptin when clinically appropriate to prevent a gap in patient treatment."

Estrogen therapy drugs

Closeup of pills.
Aslan Alphan/iStock

The hormone estrogen can be used to help treat symptoms of menopause, which include hot flashes and vaginal dryness, explains the Cleveland Clinic. "But taking estrogen alone increases the risk of uterine cancer," warns the site. "Experts know that several different factors play a role in turning healthy cells cancerous. When these factors are present, estrogen can act as a spark [and] the hormone causes cancer cells to multiply and spread."

The American Cancer Society (ACS) notes that combined hormone therapy, in which progesterone is used in addition to estrogen, can help lower the risk of uterine cancer. This therapy is known as estrogen-progestin therapy (EPT). Estrogen therapy, or ET, "is only safe for women who don't have a uterus (such as those who have had a hysterectomy)," notes the ACS.

Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.

Luisa Colón
Luisa Colón is a writer, editor, and consultant based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, Latina, and many more. Read more
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