In a time of COVID-19, we’re more aware than ever of the immune system’s role in keeping us safe as we come into contact with parasites, bacteria and viruses. The system of cells responsible for defending the body from infection is spread throughout the body’s organs and tissues. But what is the role of the immune system in cancer?

How cancer begins

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Cancer occurs when genetic changes cause some of the body’s cells to divide uncontrollably. These cells may form a tumour, either cancerous (malignant) or benign. While benign tumours can grow, they cannot spread throughout the body as cancerous tumours do. Some types of cancers, such as leukaemias, do not involve tumours.

Can a weak immune system cause cancer?

Some cancers are unavoidable, caused by genetic mutations. However, factors such as smoking and consuming alcohol can increase the risk of developing cancers.

The role of T-cells

Ageing carries a dual risk for cancer: as we get older, genetic mutations occur more frequently while our immune systems become weaker. One key part of immunity, T cells, originate in the thymus gland. 

Between infancy and adulthood, the size of the thymus decreases – meaning it produces fewer T cells. It is most active in our early years when we are most likely to encounter novel antigens. In fact, scientists have hypothesised that the shrinking of the thymus is what starts the ageing process.

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T-cells have a ‘surveillance’ function when it comes to cancer: they continually circulate the body, scanning it for cancer cells. Usually, if cancer cells appear in your body, your immune system destroys them before becoming a tumour. However, as we age and produce fewer T-cells, the immune system becomes less effective at identifying cancer cells. Therefore, cancer cells have more opportunities to grow into tumours. 

Can you increase your T-cell count?

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Of course, ageing is unavoidable. However, research has proposed several ways to boost T-cells. For example, a 2014 study suggested vitamin D can activate T-cells, enabling them to fight off cancer cells. The study also found that higher vitamin D levels may be associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer.

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Spending time in the sun may also help improve T-cell function. Researchers found that the blue light from the sun activated T-cells to move more, allowing them to circulate and perform more effectively.

Read more: Vitamin D2 vs Vitamin D3: What’s the Difference?

Can antioxidants prevent cancer?

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Although not strictly part of the immune system, antioxidant supplements such as those containing Vitamins A, C, and E may reduce cancer risk. This is because antioxidants slow the damage caused to cells by free radicals and prevent oxidative stress, linked to many diseases, including Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

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One large clinical trial found that participants who supplemented with beta-carotene, selenium and vitamin E had a much lower risk of dying from stomach cancer.

Cancer patients should take care when it comes to antioxidants, however. This is because research suggests that antioxidants could actually accelerate the growth of tumours. While the studies have only been conducted in mice, cancer patients should consult a medical professional before taking antioxidant supplements.

The takeaway

Cancer prevention is a growing study area in medical science, and new research will continue to offer innovations in preventative oncology. Currently, the NHS advises quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly as the best lifestyle changes for reducing the risk of cancer. 

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However, some studies suggest getting sufficient vitamin D could help boost your T-cells, which are crucial for killing cancer cells. Moreover, upping your antioxidant intake can prevent oxidative stress, which is linked to cancer. 

The link between the immune system and cancer is still highly contested. However, boosting the immune system through healthy eating, regular exercise and supplementing with a high-quality multivitamin such as Immunity Goals could help give your body the best defence against diseases and contribute to general wellbeing.

Medical disclaimer

You must not rely on the information on this blog as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or therapist. If you have any specific concerns about your mental or physical health, you should consult your doctor and you should not delay seeking medical advice, or treatment for your mental health, because of the information on this blog.