Man Dies After Tapeworm Inside Him Gets Cancer

h. nana

Source: NPR/PeterOlson

A man in Colombia passed away just three days after doctors found that his cancer cells contained tapeworm DNA. This sounds like an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, but it is very real and is still causing doctors to scratch their heads.

It is the first known case of a tapeworm causing cancer in a human. The news has caused many to ponder just how common tapeworms are, as well as what the symptoms of having this parasite are.

The Colombian man in question was HIV-positive but was not taking any HIV medication at the time. His immune system was severely weakened by the HIV, which likely caused the parasite’s cancer to take hold within his body. The 41-year-old man first approached doctors in 2013 with a fever and weight loss, but a diagnosis was unsuccessful.

Beef tapeworm

Source: Wikipedia

The Colombian doctors had ordered a CT scan that showed that the man had cancerous tumors in his lung, lymph nodes, and liver. However, when biopsies were taken from the tumors, they were at a loss. The results showed bizarre, tiny cells that acted like cancer cells when studied under a microscope, but did not appear to be human.

His doctors in Colombia ultimately contacted the CDC for assistance in diagnosing the man. Multiple tests later, the U.S. doctors were shocked to find that the cancer cells contained tapeworm DNA.

The worm tissue belonged to a type of dwarf tapeworm known as the Hymenolepis nana infection. It is the most common type of tapeworm in adults and is found worldwide, mostly in developing countries with low levels of sanitation and hygiene. It is said that, at any one time, 75 million people may be infected with this particular parasite. This number may seem shocking, but it is very rare to develop cancer from a tapeworm.

Tapeworm Under Microscope

Source: Shutterstock / Jubal Harshaw

The theory behind how this man’s tapeworm caused cancerous tumors in various organs of his body suggests that the tapeworm’s eggs were responsible. A tapeworm typically spits out 1,000 eggs into its host’s intestines. The doctors working on this case suspect that one of these eggs mutated and became cancerous.

Unfortunately, the man was too sick to treat by the time the official cause was discovered. He died three days later due to a kidney infection, likely related to the tapeworm cells.

You may be wondering how worried you should be about getting tapeworm cancer. According to the CDC, there are less than 1,000 cases in the U.S. each year, although experts believe many cases are not reported.

Tapeworms are usually very treatable, but due to their symptoms (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dizziness, to name a few) mistaken for other illnesses, they can cause serious problems if left untreated.

Prescription Medication

Source: Shutterstock / Shiela Fitzgerald

H. nana and other types of tapeworms are typically treated with oral medications. Praziquantel, Albendazole, or Nitazoxanide may be prescribed depending on the kind of tapeworm. In some extreme cases, surgery may be required.

Your best bet is to wash your hands thoroughly with soap before handling or eating food and after using the restroom. If you are traveling to an underdeveloped country where tapeworms and other parasites may be more prevalent, be sure to wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating. Other ways to kill tapeworm eggs and larvae are to cook all meat to at least 125°F or freeze any meat for at least 24 hours before consuming.