diagram of woman with cancer

IS THERE A CONNECTION BETWEEN AUTOIMMUNE DISEASE AND CANCER

INTRODUCTION

Autoimmune disease seems to be everywhere these days. Is our fast-paced lifestyle to blame or maybe all the toxic crap in the environment ? Could it be the foods you’re eating or lack of quality sleep? Or maybe all of these? Whatever the cause, inflammation is responsible for most autoimmune symptoms.

What is autoimmune disease? Autoimmune disease is when your immune system can’t tell the difference between foreign cells and your body’s own healthy cells and attacks your body by mistake. It can attack one specific organ as in type 1 diabetes which attacks the pancreas, or the whole body like with Lupus.

There are more than 80 different autoimmune diseases. Some run in families and are seen more often in women than men. Their symptoms may overlap making it difficult to diagnose which one you have.

What are some common symptoms of autoimmune disease?

  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain, swelling, and redness
  • achy muscles
  • numbness and tingling in hands and feet
  • low-grade fever
  • skin rashes
  • hair loss
  • trouble concentrating

There are various conventional and alternative treatments for autoimmune issues. However, they’re not without side effects. Increased risk of cancer may be one such side effect. Can autoimmune disease cause cancer? Let’s find out.

WHAT AUTOIMMUNE DISEASE AND CANCER HAVE IN COMMON

Both cancer and autoimmune disease result from immune system failure. Cancer occurs when the immune system doesn’t do its job of attacking foreign or defective cells. This can result in allowing the cells to multiply and divide out of control. Autoimmune disease results when the immune system mistakenly attacks your body’s own healthy cells.

In both autoimmune diseases and cancer, inflammation is present. Inflammation may occur in autoimmune diseases which may be implicated in the development of cancer. Chronic inflammation may damage DNA in our cells and impair the body’s ability to repair damaged cells, ultimately leading to cancer.

IS THERE AN AUTOIMMUNE DISEASE AND CANCER CONNECTION?

FEMALE STUDENT ASKING QUESTIONS

First, let’s look at the data. Several studies have shown a link between autoimmune disease and cancer; however, this is complicated by the fact that some conventional treatments for autoimmune disease may also increase your risk of cancer.

  • A 1998 study found that lupus patients have a twofold increased risk of cancer compared to those without lupus.
  • In 1997, a Chinese study found those diagnosed with autoimmune disease have a 2.4 fold increase in esophageal cancer.
  • A 1993 study showed a twofold increased risk of cancer in those with systemic sclerosis.
  • A recent study found that patients diagnosed with cancer had an increased risk of developing an autoimmune disorder.
  • Several studies on rheumatoid arthritis patients found they have double the risk of lymphoma compared to the general population. Again, chronic inflammation is most likely to blame as people with poorly controlled inflammation have the highest risk for lymphoma.

Do biologic medications for autoimmune diseases increase cancer risk?

  • A study of autoimmune patients with a history of cancer taking TNF-blockers like Humira and Enbrel found no increased risk of cancer reoccurrence or new cancer.
  • A 2014 study in Taiwan on RA patients treated with TNF inhibitors indicated lower rates of cancer (3.84%) compared to patients taking DMARDS (5.22%).
  • However, a study with psoriatic arthritis patients on TNF-inhibitors found no increased risk of developing cancers of the breast, brain, lungs, or pancreas, but there was a possible increased risk of lymphoma.
  • A 2020 study found those taking biologics have a slightly higher risk of melanoma compared to those on traditional therapy, but the risk wasn’t statistically significant.

WHAT CAN I DO TO DECREASE MY RISK OF CANCER?

There are so many things you can do to decrease your risk of cancer!

Diet

couple cooking

Paying close attention to the foods you’re eating and drinking can make a big impact on your cancer risk. The quality and quantity of your choices matter when it comes to better cancer prevention. For the foods, drinks, herbs/spices you consume most often, are they “better” quality? Try these easy hacks to improve your diet:

  • Eat more organic, grass-fed/finished, and wild-caught foods as these foods are free of pesticides and chemicals like glyphosate and are often of better quality.
  • Eat less excess added sugar, as well as processed sweeteners, that don’t help your body run better. Added sugar is associated with increased cancer risk. Sweeteners can be hundreds and thousands of times sweeter than naturally sweet foods which can contribute to cravings and higher intake of added sugar or non-nutritive sweeteners. Many of nature’s naturally sweet options (berries, sweet potato, banana etc.) also pack lots of beneficial nutrients for cancer prevention. Consider enjoying them to meet your sweet needs.
  • Choose foods with fiber. Fiber from seeds, especially flax seeds, is important as they have a high concentration of lignans that can reduce the risk of breast cancer, especially in postmenopausal women.
  • Assess your alcohol intake. Alcohol is a carcinogen. If you consume alcohol, it’s important to limit your consumption to no more than 1 drink (daily) and to maintain a plant-based diet to further reduce any cancer-causing effects from alcohol.
  • Eat a rainbow every day! Your body needs a rainbow – all the colors including white and brown foods – to do its clean-up and prevention work. Remember, herbs and spices are a great way to get in more colors.
  • Saturated fats get mixed reviews (and a lot of opinions) for overall health and cancer prevention. Foods that naturally include saturated fats and are stored/prepared properly – especially plants – can be included in your cancer prevention diet in most instances. It’s important to avoid eating too much animal derived saturated fats or saturated fats from processed foods and baked goods.
  • Watch your salt intake. Too much of anything may not be a good thing and salt is no exception. Salt intake over 2g (2000mg) daily is associated with an increased risk of stomach cancer. High salt intake will occur when there are too many processed foods in your diet (which is linked to increased cancer risk).

Environment and Lifestyle

From the pots we cook with to the bottles we drink from to the amount of stress we experience daily, your plan for cancer prevention needs to be personalized! However, there are things we can all do to limit our exposure to cancer causing agents.

  • Materials used in pots, pans, cans, wraps, storage containers, and on-the-go drink bottles can affect your cancer risk. Research indicates there are concerns with repeated exposure to BPA, non-stick coating, and aluminum so avoiding those most of the time is better. Better choices include glass, stainless steel, copper, and iron
  • Stress less. The body is designed to process all types of stress. However, ongoing stress and higher levels of stress can unravel your health. High stress and long periods of stress impair immunity, increase inflammation and cause hormone imbalances. Stress is recognized as a modifiable risk factor for cancer.
  • Exercise more. Our bodies are meant to move. When our bodies move it helps with the elimination of waste, metabolism, immunity, breathing, and as such is part of cancer prevention. If you don’t like to exercise, find other ways to add a little more movement to your life every day — ordinary activities like gardening, cleaning the house can help.
  • Sleep better. Sleep, like movement, is essential for the body to recover and repair while not being engaged in active work.
  • Excess weight, especially as increased waist circumference, is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer – particularly in premenopausal women. Increased waist circumference can indicate insulin resistance which is associated with increased cancer risk. Healthy weight loss is gradual and sustainable. Insulin resistance can develop in association with excess abdominal fat and is considered a pre-diabetic condition. Insulin resistance is characterized by elevated insulin levels in the body. Unfortunately, insulin is a growth factor for many cancers, including some breast cancers.
  • Cigarette smoke is full of cancer-causing chemicals. These chemicals damage genes and are linked to lung cancer, and other cancers as well. Smoking cessation is one of the most important ways to reduce your risk of cancer.
  • Air is now considered a carcinogen! This is especially true in urban areas. Pollutants in the air, and also those found in water and manufactured goods can damage our genes, cause inflammation and even directly stimulate the growth of cancerous cells. While we can’t necessarily avoid all exposure, we can take steps to detoxify our indoor environments with air filtration, plants, shoe mats, and avoidance of fragranced products.

CONCLUSION

There does appear to be a connection between autoimmune disease and cancer. Chronic inflammation may be the root cause of this increased risk. We’re always hearing about antioxidants, superfoods, and other newly discovered silver bullets that supposedly stave off cancer.

It’s a rich area for future research, but for now, the best thing we can do is eat a balanced, healthy diet and incorporate key foods that we know to be supportive of our overall health. Assessing your overall nutrition and lifestyle can help you and your practitioner support your better health.

Want to assess your cancer risk and see what areas you need to work on? Download my free Cancer Risk Reduction Nutrition Evaluation and find out. Remember: Knowledge is power! Use it to reduce your risk of cancer.

About the author

Susan Taylor, RDN LD is a registered dietitian / nutritionist with 20+ years experience in the nutrition field.  Susan has worked in a variety of clinical settings including hospitals, longterm care, rehab, and private practice. She currently enjoys life in the Charleston, SC area and is always looking for ways to fit in a little more beach time.