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Cancer as an Autoimmune Disease

Because certain tumors such as breast cancers thrive in settings of low-grade inflammation, our immune response can sometimes facilitate tumor growth.

December 10, 2012 |
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Supplementary Info

Sources Cited


Images thanks to: James Heilman, MD via Wikimedia Commons, Emmanuelm, Sol Silverman, Jr., D.D.S., NDNG, dliban, Tom Hickin, FatMandy, Hôpital Necker - Assistance publique - Hôpitaux de Paris, and Hans Bjorknas.


When people get heart or kidney transplants, they must be given immunosuppressive drugs to prevent rejection of the new organ. What do you suppose happens to cancer rates in those individuals who are immunosuppressed? Well, for some types of cancer, like skin cancer, the risk goes up, which support to the so-called immune surveillance hypothesis, the idea that our immune system acts as a natural defense system for keeping cancer under control. This could explain why as we age and our immune function declines, our risk of cancer goes up. Here's a video, of our immune system in action. That big oval cell in the middle is a cervical cancer cell, and those little round cells are our T cells delivering the poison pill, setting off the cancer cells self-destruct mechanism… and there it goes, bye bye cancer. That's the apoptosis, or programmed cell death that I'm always talking about. Note this so-called renaissance of the immunosurveillance hypothesis was more than 10 years ago. The problem with the theory is that for some cancers, immunosuppression decreases risk. After a kidney transplant, your skin cancer risk may go up, but your breast cancer risk goes down, your rectal cancer risk goes down. Why would people with depressed immune systems have less cancer? This led to a new theory, kind of the flip side of immune surveillance, the thought that in some sense “”cancer may be considered an autoimmune disease. See, the only reason the immune system is even able to pick out cancer cells from noncancer cells is because tumors express foreign looking antigens, immune stimulating molecules. Why would tumors do that? Why would cancer cells go out of their way to wave a red flag around, saying hey, come get me? We think it’s because cancer tends to thrive in an setting of low level inflammation. There's lots of examples of chronic inflammation leading to cancer, like ulcerative colitis to colon cancer, chronic pancreatitis to pancreatic cancer, chronic hepatitis to liver cancer, stomach inflammation; stomach cancer. Oftentimes inflammation, the body's immune response, can further cancer’s agenda. By inciting an immune response, cancer creates its own inflammation, which may stimulate angiogenesis, help bring blood to the tumor and help it grow. So the curve may look like this, a low level of inflammation stimulates cancer growth, but if the immune system really catches on, then it can actually start hacking away at the tumor and slow it down. This may explain a mystery surrounding Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancer affecting those with AIDS. When you start treating AIDS and the immune system starts to recover you can actually see a flare in the cancer… (So what are the dietary implications of this new autoimmune theory of cancer? Stay tuned.)

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ashley Rhinehart, RN.

To help out on the site please email

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

This is the first of a seven video series that takes a deep dive into the human immune system to bring you Neu5Gc, a molecule in meat that human tumors may use to facilitate growth. It's one of the most fascinating topics in modern day nutrition—stay tuned! I've done similar in-depth series on reversing cancer cell growth, why animal products cause inflammation, changing vitamin D recommendations, arugula athleticism, why nuts don't appear to cause expected weight gain, as well as the latest dietary guidelines.

For some context, please check out my associated blog posts: How Tumors Use Meat to GrowPlant-Based Diets for Rheumatoid ArthritisFlax and Breast Cancer Survival , and Mushrooms and Immunity

If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • HemoDynamic, M.D.

    Today’s video is fantastic but the apoptosis video is absolutely phenomenal!!!
    Coolest ever!

    • Twinkle

      Please tell me — what is the title of Dr. Greger’s “apoptosis video” that you say is “absolutely phenomenal” and the “coolest ever”? I want to watch that one — thanks.

  • Anie

    Is cancer more likely to occur in patients with autoimmune diseases? I suffer from rheumatism arthritis since my teenage years and I also was diagnosed with breast cancer at 32 years old and, 8 years later, had to do chemotherapy again for metastasis in the lymph nodes of my neck and in my lung. Luckily, the Taxol treatment was able to clean it all up. But I still have inflammation and join pain even on a vegetarian diet. What wrong with my immune system?!?! Thanks for your wonderful work Dr. Greger.

    • sheof

      Are you cooking your veggies? I would look into a RAW VEGAN diet. It’ so important to clean up your lymphatic system and the raw vegan diet will do just that. Our lymphatic system is a toxic waste dump and you must move it all out.

      • Anie

        Thanks for your suggestion. I started juicing last May, when I found out I needed chemo again. I do believe it helps. But sticking to a totally raw diet, even during the cold winter months, is very difficult for me. I became a vegetarian in 2010 after attending one of Dr Greger’s conference in Montreal. I am now aiming for a Vegan diet. No more eggs and no more cheese. I am almost there. So that’s my goal for 2013 along with more physical activity.

        • kathi

          Go for it Anie. Your body will thank you for it as will the countless chickens and calves. You don’t have to go completely raw, take it in steps. Also, I would suggest that you avoid sugar, at least the processed kind. Cancer has been known to feed on sugar. Blessings on your journey to better health.

      • Tan Truong

        Nothing wrong with cooking food; you just have to know what to cook and what not to cook. The studies are all there in “Becoming Raw” by Davis and Melina.

        Legumes for example, are considered “protein powerhouses… Lentils, split peas, and most beans are extremely low in fat, though high in protein, iron, zinc, and fibre.” (“Becoming Vegetarian” by Davis and Melina, p.73).

        “For prevention of chronic disease and maintaining health, legumes fit right into today’s nutritional recommendations. For diabetics, heart disease patients, and those who want to reduce risk of these diseases, legumes have been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels and improve control of our blood sugar.” (“Becoming Vegetarian” by Davis and Melina, p.75)

        “[W]hole grains are little nutrition powerhouses. They are excellent sources of carbohydrates and a number of valuable vitamins and minerals, including many B-vitamins, vitamin E, selenium, zinc, copper, magnesium, manganese, iron, potassium, and chromium. They are also great sources of fibre, plant sterols, and numerous phytochemicals such as phenolic compounds and, in some cases, phytoestrogens.”
        (“Becoming Vegetarian” by Davis and Melina, p.153).

        Here are some videos pertaining to raw vs. cooking:

        Best Cooking Method
        Which are the gentlest cooking methods for preserving nutrients and which vegetables have more antioxidants cooked than raw.

        Raw Food Nutrient Absorption
        We should prepare vegetables in whichever manner entices us to eat the greatest quantity.

        Raw vs. Cooked Broccoli
        Which results in greater phytonutrient absorption: raw broccoli, steamed, boiled, or microwaved?

        Raw Veggies Versus Cooked for Heart Disease
        Fruit and vegetable consumption is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, but which is more protective, raw or cooked?

        Raw Food Nutrient Absorption: There are certain phytonutrients that are absorbed better from cooked foods.

        Toxins in Raw Mushrooms?
        Agaratine, a natural toxin found in mushrooms, is destroyed by cooking.

        Raw Food Diet Myths
        Some nutrients are destroyed by cooking but some nutrients become more absorbable.

        Raw is healthy no doubt, but so is cooked. It’s not just what we eat; it’s also what we absorb.

    • Graham

      Yes, rheumatoid arthritis has an increased risk for lymphoma due to chronic stimulation of the lymphocytes. Not aware of any increased risk for breast or other cancers from the disease itself.

  • thissal

    I’ll bet the answer has something to do with eating foods with a high inflammation factor. Here’s a comprehensive database for that:

    • thissal

      Another great video!

    • Anie

      Love that site! great info and cool ways of presenting it.

  • Linda Masden Vixie

    Would the cervical cancer cell be a HeLa cell? I just read the (amazing) book about Henrietta Lacks.

    • Darryl

      Cancer results from damage to a number of genes that inhibit proliferation, plus environmental/nutritional stimulus to cell proliferation, The set of genes affected, and how they are damaged, can be different in every cell line. HeLa is one of many potential tumor cell lines (clones of an original tumor cell) that combined Ms. Lack’s genetics, the developmental cell differentiation to initially become a cervical cell, and a set of gene mutations / activations that made the line both particularly malignant to Ms. Lacks, and easy to culture in vitro for research. But not every cervical cancer cell will share the same set of genetic switches that occurred in HeLa, and none would share Ms. Lacks own genetic template.

  • Bruno

    Fascinating, I love this approach.

  • Tan Truong

    01:00, Makes me cry tears of joy, *sniff*.

  • kend414

    As a patient with Dermatomyositis and Interstitial Lung Disease, I am on the immunosuppressant ,Imuran . I am told the diagnosis brings with it an increase chance of malignancies. I have the disease a limitless over a year. I turned vegan with 3 months of having been diagnosed. My liver enzymes have returned to normal as have my CPK levels. My ferritin was as high as 4779! That has lowered to 1350. I juice daily with a cold press machine but wonder if a 60 day juice fast would eradicate this idiopathic, inflammatory myopathy? Any thoughts? If you’ve never heard of the disease , don’t feel bad as most doctors haven’t either. I believe the average diagnosis takes 2 years!

  • kend414

    As a patient with Dermatomyositis and Interstitial Lung Disease, I am on the immunosuppressant ,Imuran . I am told the diagnosis brings with it an increase chance of malignancies. I have the disease a limitless over a year. I turned vegan with 3 months of having been diagnosed. My liver enzymes have returned to normal as have my CPK levels. My ferritin was as high as 4779! That has lowered to 1350. I juice daily with a cold press machine but wonder if a 60 day juice fast would eradicate this idiopathic, inflammatory myopathy? Any thoughts? If you’ve never heard of the disease , don’t feel bad as most doctors haven’t either. I believe the average diagnosis takes 2 years!

    • Thea

      kend414: Thanks for sharing your story. That’s an amazing turn around, even if you haven’t gone as far as you would like. And you are right. I never heard of that disease before.

      As for the juice fast, I am skeptical of the idea in general except for people who have desperate need to lose weight. If you are eating not just vegan, but a clean diet of whole plant foods, say one that follows the PCRM :”Power Plate”, then what would a juice fast get you? My thought would be to look at what you are eating to see if anything needs to be cleaned up before doing on a juice fast.

      But please note!!!: This is just a lay person’s opinion/thoughts. I am not a doctor nor an expert. And I am especially ignorant of your particular condition.

      Best of luck to you and I hope you are able to clear up the worst of the remaining problems you have.

  • kend414

    Thank you Thea for your thoughts and wishes. I was hoping for a “reboot” with the juicing fast. A bombardment of phytonutrients in a short amount of time with the cells being fed at the cellular level while no energy is wasted on digestion of macronutrients. It is believed, though not yet proven by leading experts of DM that the body has developed cancer, fought it and beat the cancer however thebody’s cancer fighting switch is unable to turn itself off. This leads to the body’s own immune system to attack it’s muscles and joints. I am told by my doctor that I “have/had almost every known manifestation of the disease. This is very, very rare and one for the medical books”. Lucky me,right? :o) Early on, I was unable to make a fist with my right hand, a week later I was only able to bend my other hand halfway. I asked my rheumy what was happening and he replied” I have no idea what’s happening to your hands”. Wrong. Expert says, “oh, that’s arthritis.It’s one of the symptoms of DM. It’s inflammation of the joint.” This goes along with your digital pitting, unable to lift your arms above your head, purple eyelids, shortness of breath, red flat rash, grottons papules, thickening of the skin,weakened urine flow, acid reflux. hoarse voice, thinning of hair etc. Man, to be afflicted with any one of these is trying but all at the same time when you used to be healthy? I consider myself lucky. Why because the juvenile DM version causes your bones to grow out of your skin! Poor kids.
    I was told I had a fatty liver. Why?, I asked my Rheumy. “because your overweight”. Yeah, very slightly overweight. Wrong again doc. High liver enzymes are caused by DM. (taught my Gastroenterologist that) I learned so much by going to see the renowned expert but alas the expert couldn’t /wouldn’t advise/comment on my diet. His advise was to keep doing exactly what it is that I’ve been doing since he had expected to see a much worse patient. I’m grateful I’m doing so well but I want to be rid of this. I hoped to gain some knowledge as to which vegetables might be more beneficial to me in targeting my disease. I had hoped Dr Greger might give his opinion juice fasting for my disease.

    • HemoDynamic, M.D.

      I know Dr. Greger will be busy this week. He will be lecturing at John McDougall’s Advanced Study Weekend in Santa Rosa California and also in Sacramento, CA. So I will try to help out here.

      There are no absolute answers for you but you are on the right track with changing your food; however just doing a juice fast without changing your whole diet may be somewhat ineffective in the long run.

      I will tell you that I have had a 9 yo with Crohns disease that was very sick and on many medications and not being able to go to school that changed his diet completely and is now back to regular school and on 3 different soccer teams. Rarely does he have any symptoms. I have a 94 yo white male that couldn’t shake hands or walk because of severe joint inflammation that in six months completely stopped his Rheumatoid arthritis and is back to walking and shaking hands–All because of a strict plant based diet. He never took any immunologic’s (eg. Imuran)

      I have had countless others significantly improve their life and some even stop and even reverse their autoimmune disease (eg, Lupus, Ulcerative Colitis, Mixed Connective Tissue Disease) and don’t forget stopping and reversing Heart Disease, Diabetes, Cancer, High Blood Pressure, etc.

      And I will tell you the ones I do not see get better are the ones that don’t change their diet! Some respond better than others to dietary changes but all have significant improvement in their quality of life if they switch to a plant based diet!! Bottom line I have never seen any bad side effects from a plant based lifestyle change if done correctly. When I say “correctly” I mean eating a varied whole-food plant based diet, low in added oils with daily B12 (at least 250mcg). Some people think they can survive off just salad and that doesn’t work. You need complex carbohydrates, such as beans, rice, corn, whole wheat pasta, and potato’s in addition to the fruits and vegetables.

      Another option would be to go for a water fast that is medically supervised by Michael Klaper, MD at True North Medical center in Santa Rosa, CA.
      I have worked with many of the Physicians and Dietitians there and they are first class!

      At True North I have seen astounding results with the patients and this is where T. Colin Campbell, PhD (the Famous Author of the China Study) went to detox from Dioxin one of the most deadly toxins known (

      Anyway you are on the right track and I hope you can find someone locally who can support you medically with your dietary changes. If you haven’t found a doc that supports what you do keep looking and asking around until you find one. It is definitely worth your time.
      I hope this helps you. ;-)

      • kend414

        Thank you so much for the information Hemo Dynamic! So much to learn! Very encouraging ! I appreciate all the thoughts and helpful advice! The more I learn, the more I realize how very little I actually knew. This site as well as Dr Greger is amazing! Thanks for being here.