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Risk of Cancer with MS

MS puts you at Risk for Cancer

According to the neurology statistics, there are approximately 400,000 people who have multiple sclerosis (MS) in the United Sates. Worldwide, there are 2.5 million people living with this chronic, debilitating disorder. MS is a disease that is more common in Caucasians, and it most often diagnosed in people between the ages of 20 and 50 years. However, it does occur in adolescents and older adults.

According to recent epidemiological data, there are some interesting trends regarding MS. This condition is especially common in Scandinavia, Scotland, and northern Europe, as well as the U.S. Because MS is more common in European areas, researchers hypothesize that exposure to certain environmental agents before puberty may predispose an individual to this disorder.

Theories on Causes of Multiple Sclerosis

Researchers and neurologists believe that MS may be genetic, as there appears to be an increased risk seen in family members of those with the condition. First, second, and third degree relatives of those diagnosed with MS all have an inherited tendency to be at risk for developing this disorder. Scientists have theorized that MS occurs when a person born with a particular gene has some type of reaction with an environmental agent, which triggers the autoimmune response.

Some clinical studies have suggested that MS may have a viral cause, but this has not been proven. Viruses suspected include varicella zoster, Epstein-Barr, and hepatitis. Also, there is some scientific evidence that hormones can alter the immune system, and they may act as immune response suppressors. These include estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.

Increased Risk for Developing Cancer

In a recent study published in the European Journal of Neurology, researchers suggest that multiple sclerosis may increase a person's risk of developing any form of cancer, particularly breast cancer. These findings are controversial because they contradict several previous studies, so more research is necessary to determine if there is a direct association between MS and cancer.

Many earlier clinical trials found that persons with autoimmune disease have an increased risk of developing studies, but before now, there was no link between MS and cancer. Dr. Sun and associates, with the Kaohsiung Armed Forces Hospital in Taiwan, investigated this phenomenon. Their study involved over 1,250 patients who were diagnosed with MS between 1997 and 2010. They also studied around 5,000 patients who had neither cancer nor multiple sclerosis. The study was a nationwide population-based cohort study.

MS is fairly uncommon in Asia, so there are not many clinical trials or studies that focus on Asian patients with MS. The researchers decided to use Taiwan's universal healthcare program to study the relationship between cancer occurrence and MS. Also, the researchers were able to adjust data for alcohol consumption and smoking, which are well-recognized risk factors for many types of cancer.

The research team discovered that people with MS were 85 percent more likely to develop cancer than other individuals. The risk for developing breast cancer was particularly high, with results showing a two-fold increased risk over the control participants. These findings suggest that people with MS should be monitored more closely for cancer, according to Dr. Sun.


According to Sun and colleagues, the research team's results were not consistent with most other studies, but the genetic and environmental factors in Taiwan are different from those of western countries. To improve scientific understanding on this association between MS and cancer, more large-scale studies need to be done. The main indication from this clinical study is that doctors should do preventive screenings for various forms of cancer when treating patients with MS.


L-M. Sun, C.-L. Lin, C.-J. Chung, J.-A. Liang, F.-C. Sung, C.-H. Kao. Increased breast cancer risk for patients with multiple sclerosis: a nationwide population-based cohort study. European Journal of Neurology, 2013; DOI: 10.1111/ene.12267

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