Managing Treatments

How Infection and Cancer Are Linked (Plus, What You Need to Know)

Those being treated for cancer are more prone to infection. Talk to your doctor about your concerns and the warning signs.

It’s stressful enough to consider all the precautions for your cancer treatment management. But infection and cancer can also go together giving you another health concern to account for. If you’re undergoing cancer treatment you’re more vulnerable to infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 60,000 cancer patients in the U.S. are hospitalized yearly due to a serious infection. Fortunately, knowledge about how that connections works, what to look for, and what you can do to minimize that risk helps you manage.

What Causes the Infections?

Germs cause infections. These microbes are in the environment whether you have cancer or not. When the germs find a host where they can grow, they multiply, causing an infection. It’s not surprising then that infection and cancer are related. When you have cancer, and are being treated for it, your immune system can be compromised. Some cancer treatments, like a bone marrow transplant and certain types of chemotherapy, make your body less equipped to fight off infection than a healthy body would be. When your immune system is weaker, you have fewer white blood cells to fight off infection, according to the CDC.

There’s good news about infection and cancer: once your cancer treatment ends and you’re cancer-free, your risk of infection drops to that of a healthy person, according to the American Cancer Society.

How You Can Minimize Your Infection Risk

There are various ways to minimize your chance of getting an infection while you’re undergoing cancer treatment. One of the main things to do is wash your hands with soap any time you might be encountering germs, like before eating, after using the restroom, and after you’ve been in public or outside. Of course, it also makes sense for your family and those you see frequently to do the same.

Don’t hesitate to tell medical staff to wash their hands or put on gloves if they haven’t done so before touching you. Chemotherapy ports and surgical sites are additional ways for microbes to enter your body. Your medical staff will use sterile techniques to prevent microbes from entering but ports still sometimes get infected and wound care doesn’t always protect the site from germs.

While getting cancer treatment, it’s wise to avoid visiting with people who are ill and stay away from large crowds where there might be sick people. Don’t share drinking glasses or towels and avoid bathing in pools of water like hot tubs, swimming pools, or lakes. The American Cancer Society has specific guidelines to help you prevent germs from spreading to you during cancer treatment.

Common Signs of Infection in Cancer Patients

Signs of infection can be confusing when you have cancer because you might experience side effects from the treatment as well. Infection can appear as a fever or general sickness. If this happens during chemotherapy, call your doctor right away as it’s important to treat infections immediately when you have cancer.

Other signs of infection include redness or tenderness at the surgical site or at your port. Of course, if you see pus coming from the area that’s a definite sign. Infection can be internal so pay attention if you’re feeling warm, getting chills, experience sweats, developing a cough or sore throat, or have vomiting or diarrhea.

Talk to your doctor about what you should look for and what to do if you experience any signs of infection. If you haven’t begun your cancer treatment, find out the side effects so you’ll better understand what might be an infection. Your doctor can also give you advice on the best ways to avoid feeling ill during your treatment.

Cancer treatment has many side effects. To deal with infections and other health concerns, learn about how cancer treatment affects your body.

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Deborah Abrams Kaplan
Deborah Abrams Kaplan