Your immune system is comprised of cells and organs that protect your body from harmful foreign attackers (also known as antigens), such as bacteria, viruses and germs. An important component to this system is leukocytes, or white blood cells, that travel around your body to produce antibodies when an antigen is detected.1
The amazing thing about white blood cells is their ability to remember antigens. If you’ve been struck with an illness before and have recovered from it, your white blood cells already have antibodies stored specific to that disease, ready to use again if the same virus attempts to enter your body.
But when you have lupus , your immune system does the opposite, attacking healthy tissue such as in your skin or kidneys. This is why it’s called an autoimmune disease – "autos” is a Greek word that means "self."2 In short, lupus turns your immune system on itself.
Is Lupus Cancer?
Lupus is not a form of cancer because it affects your immune system. With cancer, malignant tissues grow quickly and can spread to neighboring tissues. Though lupus and cancer may be different diseases, you can still get both of them at the same time.3
Lupus Is Linked to a Higher Risk of Cancer
According to the John Hopkins Lupus Center, "autoimmune diseases are linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer," and with lupus, the risk is actually greatest during the earlier stages of the disease. While researchers are not entirely sure of the relation between lupus and cancer, the findings show a common thread between lupus and some types of cancer, such as:4
• Lymphoma — Lupus patients have a higher risk of developing both Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Researchers believe that lymphoma can result from the overstimulation and attack of the white blood cells on healthy tissue caused by lupus, along with the patient's weakened immune system. It is also suggested that immunosuppressive drugs can increase the risk of lymphoma.
• Lung Cancer — Many lupus patients who develop lung cancer are smokers. Aside from increasing your risk of developing lung cancer, smoking increases your risk for cardiovascular disease. Another important thing to note is that smoking also prevents lupus medication such as Plaquenil from working properly. It goes without saying that you should not smoke at all, even if you're not exhibiting symptoms of lupus.
• Cervical Cancer — Women with lupus have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer and abnormal PAP tests. One suggested reason is that the use of immunosuppressive medication to treat lupus lowers the defense mechanism to fight off the human papilloma virus (HPV), a virus related to cervical cancer.
Your Immune System – The Common Factor Between Lupus and Cancer
The connection between lupus and cancer isn't fully explainable yet due to the minimal amount of research. But based on what has been published already, it's evident that your immune system is likely the link between lupus and cancer.
Having a weakened immune system due to lupus leaves your body open to antigens, which can lead to more complications. The risk of getting cancer is exacerbated further if you're taking immunosuppressive medication that further weakens your immune system. To lower your risk of lupus and other illnesses, it's important to practice healthy diet and lifestyle habits that can help build up your immune system.