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Ataxia may appear ‘months or years’ before cancer diagnosis

Lung cancer: Dr Amir describes the symptoms in February

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Survival rates have drastically improved in recent decades, but challenges in early diagnosis remain. This is partly because many cancers fail to produce signs in the early stages. With some diseases like lung cancer, however, symptoms may appear months, if not years, before a tumour is found.

The classic signs of cancer are unusual body lumps, weight changes, and debilitating fatigue, but many of these occur once the disease is already in full flow.

Researchers have increased efforts to spot earlier signs of the disease in a bid to prevent the disease from spreading.

For some cancers, ataxia – a group of disorders that affect coordination, balance and speech – may be among the earliest manifestations of the disease.

It is usually the result of damage to the brain, or damage to the spinal cord and other nerves in the body.

The spinal cord strongly affects movement because it is a long bundle of nerves that runs down the spine and connects the brain to other body parts.

The NHS explains: “Any part of the body can be affected, but people with ataxia often have difficulties with balance and walking, speaking, swallowing.”

Ataxia is a common side effect of neurological disorders that cause a person to walk unsteadily or with their feet set wide apart.

According to the scientific website Rare Diseases, however, it is often a prominent feature of cancer.

The cancers often associated with ataxia in adults tend to be located in the lung, breast and ovary.

Though the syndrome is closely tied to the above diseases, it should be noted that any cancer can cause it.

In cancer, ataxia isn’t a direct reflection of the disease itself, but rather a side effect of the immune response to cancer, known as a paraneoplastic syndrome.

The Mayo Clinic explains: “Paraneoplastic syndromes […] are rare degenerative disorders triggered by the immune system response to a cancerous tumour (neoplasm), most commonly from lung, ovarian or breast cancer or lymphoma.”

They occur when cancer-fighting antibodies or white blood cells mistakenly attack normal cells in the nervous system, causing ataxia.

“Ataxia can appear months or years before the cancer is diagnosed,” adds the Mayo Clinic.

“An infected area (abscess) in the brain may cause ataxia. A growth on the brain, a cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign) tumour, can damage the cerebellum.”

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the neurological symptoms of paraneoplastic syndrome generally develop over a period of days to weeks.

The health body adds that they “usually occur prior to the tumour being discovered”.

According to the health body, symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty in walking or swallowing
  • Loss of muscle tone
  • Loss of fine motor coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Memory loss
  • Vision problems
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Sensory loss in the limbs
  • Vertigo and dizziness.

In light of increasing cancer diagnoses and deaths, anyone with unusual bodily changes is encouraged to see their GP for a checkup.

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