Paraneoplastic Syndrome: Definition & Symptom

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson cover a rare disorder associated with some types of cancer, called paraneoplastic syndrome. This lesson defines this confusing term, also describing what it is not, provides some examples.

Cancer Signs

When you think of cancer, what signs pop into your head right away? Perhaps you said bleeding if you're thinking of skin cancer. Perhaps you thought of a fracture, as a result of bone cancer. Lumps and bumps throughout the body if you thought of something like breast cancer.

Those are all the more common signs, but there is another type of problem associated with cancer that doesn't have to do with the growth of a cancerous mass or the spread of its cells throughout the body.

What Is A Paraneoplastic Syndrome?

Paraneoplastic syndrome is a collection of body-wide, abnormal signs and symptoms stemming from the presence of cancer, but not as a direct result of the primary (original) cancerous mass itself nor the spread of its cells throughout the body.

That was a difficult sentence, so let's break everything down. A syndrome is a collection of signs and symptoms. Easy enough.

'Paraneoplastic' comes from 'para-', which can mean 'beyond' or 'supplementary to', and 'neoplasia', which refers to the formation of a tumor.

In other words, paraneoplastic denotes some sort of abnormal problem that lies beyond and is supplementary to the tumor mass or metastasis (spread of cells) itself. (Note: While the term can technically refer to any tumor, cancerous or benign, it's usually used with respect to cancer.)

Tumors can produce certain substances, which then cause issues away from the tumor as the immune system responds. The symptoms may involve your glands, muscles, heart, skin, blood, digestive systems and more.

What Paraneoplastic Syndrome is Not

Paraneoplastic syndrome is not directly a result of the cancer. A primary cancerous mass could bleed out, obstruct an organ, or even crush an organ. That is a direct result of the cancerous mass itself, therefore, it is NOT a paraneoplastic syndrome. Metastatic cancer cells can grow and cause similar problems but those would not be paraneoplastic signs nor symptoms either.

This leaves us with the following: paraneoplastic signs and symptoms occur remotely from the tumor and its metastases and are caused by:

  • A substance produced by a tumor that spreads around the body to induce such signs and/or symptoms

And/or

  • A systemic (body-wide) reaction to the neoplasm's presence by the body itself. In other words, the signs and/or symptoms aren't caused by something produced by the tumor per se but more so by our body's immune system reaction to the tumor's presence.

Signs & Symptoms

The signs and symptoms associated with a paraneoplastic syndrome are highly varied as they depend on the type of tumor, what it has produced, and/or the body's reaction to it. Some example problems that may arise include:

  • Hair loss
  • Seizures
  • Edema, or swelling of the body's tissues
  • Elevated platelet counts
  • Fever
  • Inflammation of the muscles
  • Anorexia
  • Inflammation of the inner layer of the heart
  • A loss of sodium from the blood
  • Elevated calcium levels

In sum, paraneoplasia can affect virtually every part and organ system of the body from the nervous system to the muscular system, from the skin to the blood, from the endocrine system to the kidneys, and beyond.

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