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Autoimmune disease and cancer

Does having an autoimmune disease increase your risk of cancer?

Autoimmune diseases are a large group of conditions. They include

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases
  • Skin conditions, such as psoriasis

If you have an autoimmune disease, your own immune system attacks your body tissues. Normally, our immune system protects our body against infections caused by bacteria, viruses and other parasites. It recognises when something foreign enters your body and can usually get rid of it before it causes you any harm. But if you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system can make mistakes. Your immune cells start to attack your own normal body cells.

The exact causes of autoimmune diseases are not fully understood. Some people have inherited particular genes that make them more likely to develop an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases don't spread to other people like infections and they generally don't make you more likely to get cancer. 1 in 3 people develop cancer at some point in their lives, so it is not surprising that some people with autoimmune diseases will also get cancer. Generally if you have an autoimmune disease you are not more likely to get cancer than other people. But some studies have reported certain types of cancer developing in people who have particular autoimmune diseases. For example, people who have coeliac disease have a higher risk of non Hodgkin's lymphoma and men who have a treatment called PUVA for psoriasis can have a higher risk of penile cancer

There is detailed information about the causes of cancer in our section about cancer.

If you need to know more about autoimmune disease, try The American Autoimmune Related Disease Association (AARDA). They have some interesting information about this group of diseases.

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Updated: 18 April 2013