This page has been fact checked by a Doctor of Nursing Practice who specializes in Oncology and has experience working with mesothelioma patients.
Sources of information are listed at the bottom of the article. We make every attempt to keep our information accurate and up-to-date.
Please Contact Us with any questions or comments.
Immunodeficiency disorders are illnesses that weaken the immune system or completely render it non-functional. There are many potential health concerns for people with immunodeficiency, especially infections. Another possible complication is cancer. The immune system may play an important role in defending the body against malignancy. When it isn’t functioning properly, cancer may result.
This increased risk for cancer in immunodeficient patients may help explain why only a handful of people exposed to asbestos actually develop mesothelioma. Inhaled asbestos almost always causes tissue damage, but it rarely causes cancer. A compromised immune system may underly the rarity of mesothelioma.
What is Immunodeficiency?
Also sometimes called immune deficiency, immunodeficiency is not a disease or a condition in itself, but a symptom or complication. Any disorder that causes immunodeficiency causes the immune system to malfunction. This in turn results in more frequent, long-lasting, and severe infections. Immunodeficiency may be primary or secondary:
- Primary. A primary immunodeficiency disorder is one that is genetic, hereditary, or present when a baby is born. In rare cases a primary disorder may not be diagnosed until adulthood. These disorders are numerous but not common.
- Secondary. Secondary immunodeficiency is caused by a medication or drug or by an acquired illness. For instance, HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a viral infection that can develop into AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), which severely impairs the immune system. Secondary immunodeficiency is more common and can be caused by a range of things, including infections, cancer, poor nutrition, and immune suppressing drugs.
Immunodeficiency and Cancer Risk
Cancer can trigger immune system deficiencies, but the opposite is also true. Having an immunodeficiency disorder increases the risk of developing cancer. This finding from studies indicates that the immune system plays an important role in protecting the body from cancer cells. It also explains why immunotherapy treatments for cancer have been successful in some patients.
One study looked specifically at patients with primary immunodeficiency disorders. Researchers at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s Department of Immunology used the United States Immune Deficiency Network database to find out how many people with primary disorders also have cancer.
They found that the increase in cancer rates among these patients, as compared to the general population, is significant. The study also found that the increased rate was not typical in more common cancers, but was noticeable in specific types, especially those related to infections. For instance, lymphoma related to the Epstien-Barr virus was more common in primary immunodeficiency patients.
Overall, the incidence of cancer in patients with primary immunodeficiency disorders is 42 percent higher. The researchers believe there are two main reasons to explain this phenomenon: these patients lack immune function to fight infections that may causes cancer; they also have deficiencies in DNA repair mechanisms, which can lead to runaway mutations that trigger cancer.
The Immune System and Mesothelioma
A long mystery about mesothelioma is why some people exposed to asbestos develop it and others do not. Exposure to asbestos is strongly connected to mesothelioma and is considered the leading cause of this type of cancer. And yet, most people who experienced exposure, even for decades at work, do not develop mesothelioma.
Research is beginning to point to immunodeficiency as a reason. People exposed to asbestos who are later diagnosed with mesothelioma may have a compromised immune system, either from a primary or secondary cause.Studies have found that the function of the immune system is the most likely explanation as to why most people do not have mesothelioma after exposure. Researchers have found that people exposed to asbestos almost always develop pleural plaques, indicating that asbestos does get to the pleural tissue and cause damage. But there is evidence that in most people, the immune system prevents that damage from turning into cancer.
Immunodeficiency and Mesothelioma
Case studies of individuals with primary or secondary immunodeficiency disorders back up the idea that the immune system protects most people from asbestos and mesothelioma. For instance, in a case of a young man diagnosed with HIV and later AIDS developed mesothelioma without any known history of asbestos exposure. There are many cases like this.
Immunodeficiency caused by medications have also been shown to lead to mesothelioma. One case studied involved a woman who had a lung transplant. She took immune suppressing drugs to prevent her body from rejecting the organ, and eventually she developed mesothelioma.
Living with Mesothelioma and Immunodeficiency
Not only does immunodeficiency make an individual more susceptible to mesothelioma, but it can also help the cancer spread more rapidly. Patients with mesothelioma and immune system problems are likely to have poorer prognoses and survival times.
Treatment is more difficult when the immune system is not able to function normally. One reason is that a patient may not be eligible for more aggressive procedures. A major surgery, for instance, is much riskier for someone with a compromised immune system. And aggressive chemotherapy may be too much for a patient with poor immune function to handle.
The complication of immunodeficiency is just one more reason to seek specialists when getting treatment for asbestos-related illnesses. And, for anyone with known immunodeficiency disorders, early screening for any type of cancer is important for an early diagnosis and better prognosis. If you have been exposed to asbestos or if you are worried you may have a compromised immune system, see your doctor immediately.
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by Anne Courtney, AOCNP, DNP
Anne Courtney has a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and is an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner. She has years of oncology experience working with patients with malignant mesothelioma, as well as other types of cancer. Dr. Courtney currently works at University of Texas LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes.