Cancer may TRIPLE risk of developing nerve-numbing disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome

Cancer may triple risk of developing rare Guillain-Barré syndrome that can cause paralysis, major study warns

  • Cancer patients are three times more likely to develop Guillain-Barré syndrome 
  • Study of 6million people shows 2% GBS patients recently diagnosed with cancer
  • Just 0.6% of people without syndrome recently had cancer confirmed

Cancer patients may be three times more likely to be struck down with the nerve-damaging condition Guillain-Barre syndrome, a major study has found.

Danish research of 6million patients found two per cent of those suffering from GBS recently received a cancer diagnosis.

Just 0.6 per cent of healthy people were diagnosed with cancer over the same time period. 

GBS can cause paralysis in the arms, legs or face and leave patients in crippling pain. 

In severe cases, it causes life-threatening problems including breathing difficulties and blood clots. The condition kills around one in 20 people. 

Around one in 50,000 Britons and Americans develop GBS every year, usually following an infection when the immune system becomes hyperactive. 

While the latest study was observational, the researchers said cancer patients are more likely to have had surgery recently, which carries a risk of infection.

Cancer patients are three times more at risk of being diagnosed with the nerve-damaging condition Guillain-Barre syndrome, a major study has found (stock)

Cancer patients are three times more at risk of being diagnosed with the nerve-damaging condition Guillain-Barre syndrome, a major study has found (stock)


Guillain-Barré syndrome is a very rare and serious condition that affects the nerves.

It mainly causes numbness, weakness, pins and needles and pain in the feet and hands before spreading to the arms and legs.

Symptoms usually worsen over days or weeks before slowly starting to improve. In severe cases, people may have difficulty moving, walking, breathing and swallowing.

The condition is thought to be caused by the immune system attacking healthy cells, which is often triggered by an infection. 

Guillain-Barré patients are usually treated in hospital with intravenous immunoglobulin – a treatment made from donated blood that brings the immune system under control.

Patients may also need breathing and feeding tubes. 

Most people recover from most of their symptoms within six to 12 months.

But it can take years to fully recover from the nerve damage caused by the condition.

Around a fifth of Guillain-Barré patients cannot walk without assistance and suffer weakness in their arms, legs or face, balance problems and extreme tiredness. 

Guillain-Barré affects people of all ages, but adults and men are most at risk. 

The condition has also been listed as an extremely rare adverse reaction to the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine. 

Reports to the UK’s medicines watchdog suggested there were 5.6 extra cases than expected per million doses of the British jab.

To determine how often people develop GBS after a cancer diagnosis, researchers at Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark studied a Danish medical database covering 6m people

They identified 2,414 cases of GBS over a 30-year period. 

Each confirmed case was matched with 10 other people of the same age and gender who did not have the disease.

Among those with GBS, two per cent had been diagnosed with cancer either in the six months before their diagnosis or two months afterwards, according to the study published in the scientific journal Neurology.

For comparison, just 0.6 per cent of those without the Guillain-Barré syndrome had been diagnosed with cancer over the same eight-month period.  

The figures show those with cancer have a three-and-a-half times greater risk of developing GBS than those without.

Even after adjusting the data to take underlying health problems and other variables into account, there was still a near-threefold heightened risk.

People with specific cancers appeared to be even more likely to develop the condition.

Patients with lymphomas — cancer that starts in the lymph glands that can spread quickly throughout the body — were seven-times more likely to be struck down with GBS.

The risk was five-and-a-half times higher among people with lung or prostate cancer and five times higher among those with breast cancer.  

Researchers noted that people with either cancer or GBS may be more likely to be screened for other conditions, which could skew the statistics. 

But they said their findings still provide ‘robust evidence’ that recent cancer increases the risk of being diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome. 

Dr Lotte Sahin Levison, senior study author and neurologist at the university, said: ‘While our study suggests that people with cancer have a greater risk of developing Guillain-Barré syndrome, it is important that people with cancer know the overall risk of developing Guillain-Barré is still very small. 

‘More research is now needed. Our results suggest that yet unidentified factors present in several types of cancer may contribute to this increased risk.’