Protect yourself against this common complication of cancer

January 04, 2017 | by Alexander Hantel, M.D.

Every now and then, we forget what our immune system does for us until a head cold or small cut reminds us to slow down and take care of our bodies. 

Our immune system helps keep us active and strong by fighting off bacteria, germs and viruses. But cancer and its treatments can damage the immune system. A small head cold or paper cut may mean just another day at the office for you, but for people with cancer, it can cause a great deal of harm.

For instance, chemotherapy works to destroy cancer cells, but it can also reduce white blood cells that help you fight infections. When this happens, your body has a harder time fighting against germs, a head cold or a cut.

Infections are actually one of the most common and life-threatening complications of cancer and cancer treatment. Infections occur when germs enter your body and multiply, causing illness, disease, or organ and tissue damage.

People receiving chemotherapy are at higher risk of developing an infection between 7 and 12 days after receiving treatment, when their white blood cells are at the lowest numbers.

You can help prevent infection during cancer treatment by: 

  • Washing your hands often with soap and warm water, including washing your hands before/after eating, and after touching your face, eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Washing your hands after using the bathroom, blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
  • Washing your hands after touching animals, collecting trash or taking out the garage.
  • Washing your hands after visiting a public place or touching items used by others.
  • Carrying an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to clean your hands when you’re out.
  • You can also protect yourself by getting your flu shot every fall, and avoiding large crowds where the flu travels quickly.

    Unfortunately, infections can occur, and in just about anywhere in your body. Symptoms of infections vary, but include: 

  • A fever of 100.5°F or higher
  • Chills or sweating
  • Sore throat, sores in the mouth, or a toothache
  • Abdominal pain
  • Pain or sores near the anus, pain or burning when urinating, frequent urination or diarrhea
  • A cough or shortness of breath
  • Redness, swelling or pain, particularly around a cut, wound or catheter placement
  • Unusual vaginal discharge or itching

  • No matter how careful you are, you still may pick up germs that can cause an infection. Talk to your healthcare team about what signs you should look for to prevent an infection and steps you can take to keep your body healthy throughout treatment.

    How do you protect yourself against infections? Tell us in the below comments.

    Learn more about using your immune system to fight cancer.

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