Contributor: Josette Snyder, RN, MSN, AOCN
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You know that cancer treatment takes a toll and weakens your immune system, which makes it harder for your body to protect itself in a number of ways. But there are several steps you can take to stay healthy and guard against infection during your treatment.
Here is how treatment for cancer takes its toll on your body and how you can help keep yourself safe while your natural defenses are low.
Neutrophils: Your body’s first defense
Chemotherapy works by targeting and killing cancer cells, but this targeting isn’t exact. Cancer cells reproduce rapidly. Some chemotherapy drugs work by targeting cells that reproduce quickly. But while chemotherapy attacks cancer cells, it also affects other types of cells in your body.
Neutrophils are one type of fast-dividing cell that chemotherapy can attack. A neutrophil is a type of white blood cell that serves as your body’s first responder. When you have an injury that gets red or inflamed, or an infection that involves pus, it’s because the neutrophils have started repairing the damage.
When chemotherapy lowers your body’s number of neutrophils, it’s harder for your body to fight off infection and easier for you to get sick.
Chemo and your GI tract
Another part of the body that makes use of fast-dividing cells is your gastrointestinal tract, which is lined with these from your mouth to your rectum. Your gut — particularly your intestines — contains bacteria that are good for your gastrointestinal tract but bad for other parts of your body.
Chemotherapy can damage the lining of your gastrointestinal tract in the process of fighting cancer cells. When that happens, the naturally occurring gut bacteria can enter parts of the body where they don’t belong, and cause infection.
Surgery also poses infection risk
Any type of surgery comes with the risk of infection, because our skin serves as an armor that keeps germs on the outside.
Any time a surgical incision breaches the skin, germs may enter the body and cause infection.
Keeping yourself safe
While it’s impossible to eliminate all risk of infection during cancer treatment, you can take plenty of steps to improve your odds:
1. Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands frequently, especially when you’re out in public, and use hand sanitizer when soap and water aren’t available. Avoid touching your face when your hands aren’t clean.
2. Take care of your surgical incisions. Follow your care team’s instructions for wound care after any surgery. Contact them immediately if anything seems wrong with your wound.
3. Limit your contact with others — within reason. No one’s asking you to live in a bubble during cancer treatment, but reducing unnecessary contact with others lowers your infection risk and makes good sense. Try these tips:
- Go grocery shopping at a time when there are fewer people in the store.
- Sit away from other people at the movie theater.
- Politely divert well-meaning hugs from acquaintances.
4. Stay away from family members who are sick, if possible. Family members are often a huge source of support during cancer treatment, but if they’ve been sick, it’s best to avoid contact for a bit. Stay in touch with a phone call or video chat instead.
5. Tell your care team when family members get sick. If a spouse, child or other family member in your home gets sick, it’s a good idea to let your doctor know. He or she will be able to advise you on things to watch out for and may suggest other precautions you can take.
He or she also may prescribe a precautionary antibiotic to give your body a head start on fighting a potential infection.
6. Remember that illness may look different during treatment. The symptoms caused by the response of neutrophils are often among the first signs that we’re sick, and if you’re low on neutrophils, these symptoms may not be perceptible. However, you may still have a fever. If you develop a fever of 100.4 or higher, contact your doctor.
Infection during cancer treatment can cause complications and prolong your recovery from the treatment. However, taking a few extra precautions can give your immune system a hand and help keep you healthy during treatment.
Read more expert advice from the Cancer Answer Nurses on their blog.
Get your question answered on the Cancer Answer Line