Alberta Cancer Foundation

Ask the Expert: How Inflammation Relates to Cancer

I keep hearing about inflammation and how that relates to cancer. I’m assuming that means more than having swollen joints or limbs? What’s the relation?

Dr. Nigel Brockton, a research scientist in molecular cancer epidemiology, says the link between cancer and inflammation goes way back to the 1800s when it was first proposed by Rudolf Virchow but it was largely ignored until the late 20th century!

“We now know that cancer often arises at sites of chronic inflammation, and chronic inflammatory conditions dramatically increase a person’s risk of cancer,” he says, adding that, “Inflammation is a natural reaction to a wound, irritation or infection, but chronic inflammation can damage DNA, provide a powerful stimulus for cell growth, may increase the number of cells that can become cancerous and may help cancer spread from its primary site.”

He explains that the most common cancers occur in epithelial cells that line organs such as the colon, lungs, prostate and breast. “These cells typically divide more quickly than other cell types, and chronic inflammation can damage the controls that normally limit their growth and division,” he says. “It is particularly inflammation that affects epithelial tissues that is associated with an increased cancer risk. However, lifestyle factors such as obesity, smoking and an unhealthy diet increase systemic (whole body) inflammation that can worsen local inflammation and increase a person’s risk of cancer.”

Does that mean it’s worth controlling inflammation with medication to reduce the risk? Not necessarily, says Brockton. “Anti-inflammatory drugs can reduce the risks of certain cancers but the potential risks associated with those medications are not currently justified by the reduced risk of cancer.” So can anything be done about inflammation? “Making healthy choices such as avoiding obesity, tobacco use and an unhealthy diet, all of which can increase systemic (whole body) inflammation, can reduce inflammation and a person’s risk of cancer,” he says.