If scary newspaper headlines are to be believed, then most things give us cancer – from lounging around in the sun too long to eating too many fried foods (why does it always have to be our favourite things?). So when a headline comes along with some good news for a change, we all want to believe it. For example, the recent reports that having multiple sclerosis lowers your risk of cancer. It doesn’t make up for some of challenges MS can bring each day, but is it finally some “good” news?
The thing is you can’t believe everything you read in the papers. After all, a headline reading “Study shows people with MS have a lower risk of some cancers but a higher risk of others, although scientists still aren’t really sure why” wouldn’t be so snappy, would it? So let’s take a look at the facts.
We know the immune system plays a central role in both MS and many cancers , which is why scientists are so interested in the link between them. The problem is much of the research is conflicting. There have been a few studies in the past that found people with MS were actually more at risk of cancer than the general population. One study in Taiwan, for example, found people with MS had a higher overall risk of developing cancer ; while a Danish study found a slightly increased risk of breast cancer in women with MS .
Before you panic, though, it’s important to remember that these are just two studies. Others drew very different conclusions. Several studies found there was no difference in cancer risk between people who did and didn’t have MS . And that Danish study that found an increased risk for breast cancer? It also concluded the overall risk of cancer was lower in men with MS than men without the condition. The researchers suggested this could be down to lifestyle changes among people with MS, including smoking and nutritional habits, as well as medication.
Another study, led by Canadian researchers, also found people with MS had a reduced overall risk of developing cancer. In fact it concluded that risk of developing colorectal cancer in particular was significantly lower among people with MS. They did, however, find a slightly increased risk of brain, bladder and skin cancer.
The most recent study, conducted in Sweden, is perhaps the most positive of all. It concluded people with MS had a significantly lower risk of dying from cancer than the general population. The researchers suggested this could be related to some aspect MS disease activity. Of course this is again just one study, but in theory could mean MS research may go hand in hand with cancer research.
There was, however, one unexpected finding from the Canadian research team all people with MS should be aware of. In people with MS who did develop cancer, tumours tended to be larger at diagnosis. Researchers suggested this could be because they were diagnosed at a later stage than people without MS – possibly because symptoms of MS, such as fatigue, masked the symptoms of cancer. In other words, it’s important not to dismiss any new symptoms as “oh, it’s just my MS”. If you do notice any changes in your health and feel concerned, speak to your physician.
Regardless of whether you have MS or not, you can help reduce your risk of cancer by eating a healthy, balanced diet, exercising, moderating alcohol intake, and steering clear of cigarettes . Not exactly newsworthy – you certainly won’t see this information making the headlines – but at least now you know the whole story.