According to a recent article published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, individuals who suffer from autoimmune disorders have an increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) is a form of cancer that begins in the cells of the lymph system, which includes the spleen, thymus, tonsils, bone marrow, lymph nodes, and circulating immune cells. Lymphocytes are the main cells in the lymph system and exist in two forms: B and T-cells. Each of these cells serves a specific function in aiding the body fight infection. B-cell NHL is the most common type of NHL; it involves cancer that originates in B-cells and affects their normal maturation.

In NHL an excessive amount of atypical (cancerous) lymphocytes accumulates in the lymph system. These lymphocytes can crowd and suppress the formation and function of other immune and blood cells. NHL is categorized by the type of lymphocyte it involves and further defined by the rate at which the cancer grows. The appearance of cells under a microscope indicates the growth rate. High-grade or aggressive NHL is the fastest growing, whereas low-grade or indolent lymphoma develops more slowly.

Intense research has recently focused on defining variables associated with increased risks of developing specific cancers. The goal of this approach is to reduce the danger of developing cancer by encouraging individuals to modify risky behaviors (when possible). As well, knowledge of these variables may identify high-risk individuals so that they may be closely monitored for early cancer detection and treatment.

The development of some cancers is thought to be associated with pathways involved with inflammation. Autoimmune disorders are diseases in which the patient’s immune system is at times improperly stimulated to attack the body’s healthy tissues. This often results in constant inflammatory responses; a condition that some researchers speculate may increase the risk of developing cancer.

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Researchers from Greece recently reviewed data from 20 studies that evaluated individuals with autoimmune diseases and their incidence of cancer. The data included individuals with the autoimmune disorders rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Sjogren syndrome (SS), or systemic lupus erythematous (SLE). Individuals with any autoimmune disorder had a greater risk of developing NHL than the general population; however, this risk was different among the diseases.

  • Individuals with SS had a high risk for developing NHL.
  • Individuals with SLE had a moderate risk for developing NHL.
  • Individuals with RA had a lower risk of developing NHL.

The researchers concluded that individuals with autoimmune diseases appear to have a significantly increased risk overall of developing NHL than the general public. Individuals with autoimmune diseases may wish to speak with their physician about their individual risks of developing NHL as well as a possible screening program for the disease.

Reference: Zintzaras E, Voulgarelis M, Moutsopoulos H, et al. The Risk of Lymphoma Development in Autoimmune Diseases. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2005; 165: 2337-2344.

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