Paraneoplastic Syndromes

Paraneoplastic syndromes are a group of rare disorders triggered by a person's immune system in response to a cancerous tumor.


Neurologic paraneoplastic syndromes are believed to occur when cancer-fighting antibodies (white blood cells known as T cells) attack normal cells by mistake in the nervous system. These disorders often affect middle-aged to elderly people. They are most common in people with lung, ovarian, lymphatic, or breast cancer.


Symptoms generally develop over a period of days to weeks. They usually occur prior to tumor detection, which can complicate the diagnosis. Symptoms include:

  • Difficulty with walking.

  • Difficulty with swallowing.

  • Loss of muscle tone.

  • Sleep disturbances.

  • Dementia.

  • Dizziness (vertigo).

  • Loss of fine motor coordination.

  • Slurred speech.

  • Memory loss.

  • Vision problems.

  • Seizures.

  • Loss of feeling in the limbs.


Diagnostic tests will depend on your symptoms and the particular syndrome your caregiver thinks you may have. Testing may include blood tests, procedures such as lumbar puncture, and radiology tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).


The cancer is treated first. Then, efforts are made to decrease the autoimmune response. This may be done with:

  • Steroids (cortisone or prednisone).

  • High-dose immunoglobulin.

  • Irradiation.

Blood cleansing (plasmapheresis) may ease symptoms in patients with paraneoplastic disorders. These disorders affect the peripheral nervous system. Speech and physical therapy may help patients regain some functions. There are no cures for these syndromes.


Follow the instructions provided by your caregiver.


You have any of the symptoms your caregiver has told you are an emergency. These symptoms will be specific to your cancer and paraneoplastic syndrome.