In many cases, chemotherapy can help shrink tumors or stop them from growing. But certain types of chemotherapy medications can also weaken your immune system. That can leave you vulnerable to infections.
Here are eight simple steps for caring for your immune system during chemotherapy.
Ask your doctor if you should take any protective drugs to help boost your immune system or prevent infection.
If you’re at high risk of infection, they might prescribe growth factors, also known as colony-stimulating factors (CSFs). CSF treatments can be administered as an injection or a skin patch. The treatments help promote the growth of blood cells and reduce your risk of infection. However, they can also cause serious side effects that are most often temporary.
If your immune system is very weak, your doctor might also recommend prophylactic antibiotics. These medications include anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal medications.
Talk to your doctor to learn more about the potential benefits and risks of taking these medications.
Getting an annual flu shot helps lower your risk of contracting the flu, a potentially life-threatening illness.
According to the American Cancer Society, the flu shot can be given two weeks before chemotherapy or between chemo cycles. People with cancer should avoid taking the nasal mist version of the flu vaccine.
Some other vaccines are also unsafe for people with a weakened immune system. Talk to your doctor to learn which vaccines are safe and recommended for you.
Poor nutrition can weaken your immune system. In turn, this raises your chances of getting sick. That’s why it’s so important to eat a nutritious diet, with enough calories and nutrients to meet your body’s needs.
That can sometimes be tricky to do, especially if cancer or cancer treatments have affected your digestive system or appetite. To develop an eating plan that works for you, your doctor might encourage you to meet with a nutritionist. In some cases, they might recommend dietary supplements, tube feedings, or intravenous feedings to help meet your nutritional needs.
Some germs can be spread through contaminated foods and drinks. To protect yourself, wash raw fruits and vegetables before eating them. Thoroughly cook all animal products, including meat, egg, and dairy products.
Good hand hygiene is important, particularly when your immune system is weakened. You can reduce your chances of becoming ill by washing your hands regularly with soap and warm water, especially:
- before eating, blowing your nose, or touching your face
- after spending time in public places or with people who are sick
- after using the washroom, touching garbage, or handling animal products or waste
Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to clean your hands when there’s no soap or water available.
It’s also important to shower or bathe on a regular basis and brush your teeth every day.
Try not to spend time with people who have a fever, the flu, or other infections. If someone in your home is sick:
- Avoid spending time in the same room as them, as much as possible.
- Avoid sharing personal products with them, such as pillows or towels.
- Wash any surfaces and objects they might have touched.
- Wash your hands regularly with soap and water.
You should also try to avoid large crowds. Some people in a crowd may have viral or other infections.
If you have pets or livestock, ask someone else to take responsibility for cleaning their cages, tanks, pens, or litter boxes. Avoid touching animal waste, as well as soil that might be contaminated with animal waste. If you must handle those things, wear protective gloves and wash your hands afterwards.
It’s also a good idea to limit your contact with diapers and other people’s stool.
Watch out for signs and symptoms of infection, such as:
- sore throat
- nasal congestion
- redness, warmth, swelling, or pain in any part of your body
- changes in mental status
If you suspect you might have an infection, contact your cancer care team immediately. Early treatment might help you recover more quickly and reduce your risk of complications.
There are other strategies that you can follow to protect yourself from infection in specific situations. Ask your cancer care team if they have advice on steps you can take to stay safe while:
- visiting the hospital or other healthcare centers
- completing chores and self-care activities
- spending time in public places
- spending time outdoors
Chemotherapy treatments may impact your immune system and reduce your body’s ability to fight off infections. That’s why it’s important for you to take active steps to protect yourself from infections.
Ask family members and friends to take over chores — such as cleaning up after pets or taking out the garbage — that might put you at risk. Talk to your cancer care team about other steps you should consider, such as preventive medication.