DURHAM, N.C. — Can cancer cause you to speak with another country’s accent? Doctors from Duke University say a prostate cancer patient in the United States suddenly started talking with an Irish accent after his diagnosis. This rare case of foreign accent syndrome (FAS) is one of only a handful that appear to be a result of developing cancer.
Reporting in BMJ Case Reports, the study authors say the man in his 50s started speaking with an “uncontrollable ‘Irish brogue’ accent” approximately 20 months after doctors diagnosed him with metastatic hormone-sensitive prostate cancer. Adding to the mystery, the patient had no Irish background and never visited Ireland before. The Duke team adds this is a telltale sign of foreign accent syndrome, although cancerous tumors are rarely the cause.
In fact, there are only two other documented cases of cancers triggering FAS. One took place in 2008, when a woman in her 60s started to speak differently after her breast cancer spread to the brain. The other documented case involved a woman in her 50s who developed a brain tumor and began to speak with a different rhythm and melody, according to reports. This new case is the first to involve prostate cancer.
“He had no neurological examination abnormalities, psychiatric history or MRI of the brain abnormalities at symptom onset,” the study authors write in their report.
Typically, FAS has a close association with traumatic brain injuries. However, the condition can also manifest on its own with no obvious cause — like in the 2018 case of an American woman in Arizona who suddenly started speaking like “Mary Poppins.”
Why did the patient start speaking like an Irishman?
Although the prostate cancer patient did not initially have brain tumors, doctors note that some brain tumors did develop as the disease progressed. With that in mind, the team believes this case of FAS was actually the result of paraneoplastic neurological disorder (PND). This rare condition develops when cancers outside of the brain cause an immune response which disrupts the nervous system.
Despite chemotherapy and radiation treatments, the man’s cancer continued to spread rapidly, eventually causing paralysis and the death of the patient. Researchers note that this man continued to speak with an Irish accent until his untimely death.
“This unusual presentation highlights the importance of additional literature on FAS and PNDs associated with prostate cancer to improve understanding of the links between these rare syndromes and clinical trajectory,” the case study authors conclude.