Being Well

Does Inflammation Cause Cancer?

Eating anti-inflammatory foods, like ginger and turmeric, may help lower your cancer risk.

As we learn more about the complex interactions among cells, we’re learning more about how cancer begins and grows. You may have heard about inflammation as a contributing factor to the development of cancer — but does inflammation cause cancer?

The answer isn’t so straightforward. Inflammation is a critical part of your immune system’s response to infection. But research does associate long-term, or chronic, inflammation with the development of many diseases, including cancer.

Understanding Inflammation

Informed Health defined inflammation as a complex biological process that occurs in response to cellular damage or death. When cells die due to an injury or infection, your immune system works to prevent further damage. When your immune system is activated, specialized cells travel to the site of the injury or infection. Many of these cells release certain chemicals and other substances which enhance the immune system response and promote inflammation. This process naturally stops once healing has occurred.

But for some people, the immune system malfunctions. Instead of stopping the inflammatory process when healing is complete, some people live with low levels of inflammation, sometimes for months or even years at a time. This type of inflammation — chronic inflammation — has been linked to many serious diseases, including cancer, bowel diseases and rheumatoid arthritis.

Does Inflammation Cause Cancer?

Over short periods of time, inflammation helps your body heal. Scientists are exploring this process for use in newer cancer treatments, like immunotherapy. Immunotherapy may help by promoting short-term inflammation as a tool for your body to fight cancer cells.

However, the National Cancer Institute noted that long-term inflammation eventually causes damage to cellular DNA. This damage makes cancer more likely. Also, the inflammatory process produces certain molecules, called cytokines, which stimulate new blood vessel growth to cancerous tumors. These new blood vessels supply tumors with oxygen and nutrients, which further fuels cancer growth, according to the Journal of Immunology Research.

Risk Factors for Inflammation

We don’t yet know exactly why chronic inflammation affects some people and not others. However, doctors have identified several risk factors that may make chronic inflammation more likely, including:

  • Certain autoimmune disorders
  • Chronic infections
  • Consumption of certain foods
  • Obesity

Preventing Inflammation

Changing certain lifestyle factors may help you avoid chronic inflammation and lower your cancer risk. Like preventive measures for all types of cancer, it’s important to eat healthy foods, exercise and avoid smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.

You may also benefit from certain foods that have anti-inflammatory properties. According to Medical News Today, ginger and turmeric help reduce inflammation levels while treating some conditions like arthritis. However, further research is needed to fully understand the anti-inflammatory benefits of these roots. Other anti-inflammatory foods include:

  • Fatty fish
  • Fruit
  • Leafy greens
  • Nuts
  • Olive oil
  • Tomatoes

It’s best to avoid foods that may increase inflammation, such as fried foods, red meat, sugary drinks and foods that contain refined carbohydrates, like white bread.

Although the relationship between chronic inflammation and cancer isn’t fully understood, evidence points to long-term inflammation as a likely contributing factor in cancer development. You can help reduce your risk by making healthy lifestyle choices and consuming anti-inflammatory herbs and foods. Be sure to talk with your doctor about any lifestyle changes you plan to make. With your doctor’s help, you can stay as healthy as possible.

Talk to your doctor to learn more about your risk for chronic inflammation and how to prevent this condition.

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Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN