Cancer as an Autoimmune Disease

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

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

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 supports 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 ten years ago. The problem with the theory is that for some cancers, immunosuppression decreases cancer 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 a 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 turning into liver cancer, stomach inflammation to 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 something 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.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

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 supports 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 ten years ago. The problem with the theory is that for some cancers, immunosuppression decreases cancer 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 a 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 turning into liver cancer, stomach inflammation to 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 something 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.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Doctor's Note

This is the first of a seven-part 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 (see Ex Vivo Cancer Proliferation Bioassay); why animal products cause inflammation (see The Leaky Gut Theory of Why Animal Products Cause Inflammation); changing vitamin D recommendations (Vitamin D Recommendations Changed); arugula athleticism (see Doping With Beet Juice); why nuts don’t appear to cause expected weight gain (see Nuts and Obesity: The Weight of Evidence); as well as the latest dietary guidelines (see Dietary Guidelines: Corporate Guidance).

For further context, 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.

35 responses to “Cancer as an Autoimmune Disease

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    1. 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.




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  1. 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.




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    1. 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.




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      1. 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.




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        1. 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.




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      2. 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. http://www.amazon.ca/Becoming-Raw-Comprehensive-Nutritious-Raw-Food/dp/1570672385

        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.
        http://nutritionfacts.org/video/best-cooking-method/

        Raw Food Nutrient Absorption
        We should prepare vegetables in whichever manner entices us to eat the greatest quantity.
        http://nutritionfacts.org/video/raw-food-nutrient-absorption-2/

        Raw vs. Cooked Broccoli
        Which results in greater phytonutrient absorption: raw broccoli, steamed, boiled, or microwaved?
        http://nutritionfacts.org/video/raw-vs-cooked-broccoli-2/

        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?
        http://nutritionfacts.org/video/raw-veggies-versus-cooked-for-heart-disease/

        Raw Food Nutrient Absorption: There are certain phytonutrients that are absorbed better from cooked foods.
        http://nutritionfacts.org/video/raw-food-nutrient-absorption-3/

        Toxins in Raw Mushrooms?
        Agaratine, a natural toxin found in mushrooms, is destroyed by cooking.
        http://nutritionfacts.org/video/toxins-in-raw-mushrooms/

        Raw Food Diet Myths
        Some nutrients are destroyed by cooking but some nutrients become more absorbable.
        http://nutritionfacts.org/video/raw-food-diet-myths/

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




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    2. 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.




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    1. 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.




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  2. 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!




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  3. 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!




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    1. 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.




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  4. 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.




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    1. 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. https://www.facebook.com/truenorthhealth.
      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 (http://www.vegsource.com/news09/031612.html).

      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. ;-)




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      1. 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.




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  5. Can diet be at all helpful for Sjogren’s Syndrome? Has any research been done with that? I suffer from dry mouth, dry eyes and peripheral neuropathy in feet and calves when in bed at night. Thanks so much for any help you can give me…Can Sjogrens ever be cured?




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    1. Nancy, I’m not sure about diet per se. I do know that cutting out sugar is paramount in maintaining optimal dentition…even “diet” beverages of any kind should be avoided. However, patients with Sjogrens would do well to increase intake of water throughout the day. And, at night, rinse with baking soda and water after brushing teeth. This may help keep mouth moist, hopefully avoiding dental caries from forming while sleeping.

      U.C.S.F. is ranked #1 in the nation for their Sjogren’s Clinic. I would not hesitate, another day, to contact U.C.S.F. to see if they can help.




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    2. Nancy,
      I have many patients that have autoimmune disorders that improve substantially on eating a whole food plant based diet. Some go into complete remission and all the others have reduced symptoms and improved quality of life. Everyone benefits!
      I have yet to see someone eating a low fat, Whole food, plant based diet minimizing all added oils (you can use olive oil sparingly) that hasn’t improved their quality of life and sense of well-being. Everyone wins!
      So to truly get the benefit you must eliminate all eggs (even egg whites), meat, dairy, cheese, fish (anything that comes from an animal) and eat whole plant food, which also means minimally processed. The fake meats are also problematic because they tend to be highly processed, some high in fat, and cause inflammation which exacerbates the problems you discussed.

      So. . .
      Whole Grain Oatmeal in the morning. I buy bulk 5 grain oatmeal, add some regular rolled oats, some raisins, cranberries, a few walnuts and mix in a 1-2 gallon plastic container and then pour that into a plastic tupperware in the morning, cut up some fresh strawberries, bananas, or blueberries and pour almond milk over that and eat on the way to work and throughout my morning between patients.

      I also make smoothies in the morning after I workout (which is first thing) which has, pressed apple juice (what ever 100% juice you like as the liquid), 1 Tbsp ground Flaxseed, 1-2 cups Kale (baby kale my favorite), some mixed berries (eg, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries), mango and sometime cherries and bananas. Blend in a Ninja or Vitamix and enjoy! And If you want an even larger anti-inflammatory boost put a teaspoon of Amla powder in as well. Now you have one of the most powerful antioxidant smoothies ever made! (Thank you Dr. Greger!-)

      Lunch: Rice and beans with a good salsa and leafy greens cut up and placed on top. Amy’s food and Trader Joe’s (Black bean and corn) have some delicious Vegan enchiladas you can use as a base as well. Trader Joe’s has some 3 minute whole grain rice that I like. Add some baked corn chips and you are golden.

      Dinner: Pasta and Marinara sauce with sauteed mushrooms, garlic, onions and zucchini and squash added. Toast some whole grain sprouted bread (Trader joes has delicious sprouted whole grain breads) and Voila!

      To of my favorite websites for recipee ideas are http://www.FatFreeVegan.com and http://www.LowFatVeganChef.com. The low fat Vegan Chef has a great crock pot recipee for Plant based Sloppy Joes! Super easy too!

      I guarantee if you start eating this way you will feel better and I hope you can become a person who says, “I used to have Sjogrens.”

      I hope this helps!




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  6. Very interesting. Made me want to study this Dr. Richmond T Prehn M.D. I discerned his name in the background and decided to research on him. Very interesting man he is. Many intriguing reports and studies on some of his work and some on the Man himself. All in the end just to prove that Cancer is an Auto-Immune disorder. So very fascinating how the body can involuntarily fight itself. Astonishing.




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  7. Hi Nutritionfacts community!

    I was wondering about diet recommendations for someone with chronic pancreatitis. My friend’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago, she’s still on hormonal therapy.
    She’s recently developed chronic pancreatitis (she’s not a drinker, maybe a glass of wine every now and then but nothing else). Her doctor recommended less meat (I agree) and no foods that are difficult to digest such as greens (really?!!!).
    I was wondering if you could help out and had any recommendations that I can give her?

    Thanks so much!




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    1. Hi Verena,

      I am a volunteer for Dr. Greger. Thank you for your question.

      Those with pancreatitis typically have difficulties breaking down fatty foods. Therefore, reduction of animal foods, as well as oils, may improve her digestibility. To reduce inflammation, high intake of fruits and vegetables would be recommended. I have seen no evidence that suggests that those with pancreatitis should decrease consumption of green leafy vegetables. Therefore, I would still recommend them.

      I hope this helps!




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      1. Hello,

        Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my question. You confirmed what I thought and I will be confident in suggesting the plant-based diet to my friend’s mother (as I am with anyone, really!)

        I really appreciate the help, all the best and keep up the great work with nutiritonfacts.org, it is such an inspiration!!!




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