By: Dana Mansour, Health Educator at Qatar Cancer Society
White blood cells are part of the immune system, and help the body fight infection, whether bacterial, viral, or fungal. Lower levels of white blood cells show that the immune system is not strong enough to cope with infection and this can increase the incidence of infection and complications.
Cancer treatments (chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, stem cell or bone marrow transplants), as well as malnutrition can increase the risk of infection in cancer patients by causing a decrease in the number of white blood cells and thus weakening the immune system.
Chemotherapy and Immunodeficiency
A lower level of white blood cells is a normal side effect of some types of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy works to destroy rapidly dividing cells, whether they are normal or cancerous. This affects the functioning of the bone marrow (responsible for the production of blood cells) and causing a decrease in the count of all types of blood cells: white, red and platelets.
The risk of infection usually rises about 7 to 10 days after each dose of chemotherapy, and can last for up to one week.
Malnutrition in Cancer Patients
Malnutrition can be defined as lack of access to adequate calories and nutrients, or inability of the body to take advantage of food after eating it.
Cells need proper nutrition to grow and perform vital functions. Therefore, lack of vitamins, minerals, calories and protein can weaken the immune system and make it less able to find and destroy germs. This means that people who are malnourished are more likely to have a weakened immune system.
For cancer patients, malnutrition is a common problem for many reasons, including:
- Cancer may make it difficult to eat or digest; this is common in patients with gastrointestinal cancers.
- Various cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy, can cause nausea and loss of appetite.
- Cancer cells consume nutrients, leaving insufficient amounts to meet normal body needs.
How to Diagnose Immune Deficiency
Your doctor will inform you about the number of different types of white blood cells. The immunity deficiency period varies but usually begins 7 to 10 days after receiving chemotherapy. Acute immunodeficiency may lead to medical risks that require immediate medical intervention; an infection with lower levels of white blood cells threatens the patient’s life.
Early Signs of Immune Deficiency
It is important to monitor the early signs of infection. Consult your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms, to make sure you get treatment as soon as possible:
- High temperature: High temperature is one of the most recognizable signs of infection and sometimes it is the only sign or symptom, so cancer patients are advised to inform their doctor immediately if their temperature rises above 38 degrees Celsius. It is important not to take any fever reducing medications before consulting the doctor.
Cancer patients with low levels of white blood cells and receiving chemotherapy must measure their temperature daily.
Some symptoms depend on the location of the infection. For example:
- Skin infection: pain, redness, swelling of the skin next to a wound.
- Bladder infection: pain during urination.
- Gastrointestinal infection: diarrhea, cramps.
- Respiratory infection: cough, sputum.
- Ear infection: ear pain.
- Infection in the rectum: pain during defecation, bleeding from the rectum.
How to Avoid Infection?
Lower levels of white blood cells make it difficult for the body to cope with any infection, even simple. It is therefore vital to follow certain good habits to prevent infection before it occurs, for example:
- Always keep hands clean; most infections are transmitted through hands and items that have been used or touched by the patient.
- Avoid getting close to others who are infected with colds, flu, and measles. Also, stay away from children immediately after they have received smallpox and polio vaccinations.
- Stay away from crowded places to avoid transmission of infection.
- Avoid any skin injury or scratching (for example, use an electric shaver instead of blades).
- Avoid any cracks in the skin by using moisturizing creams.
- Proper care of wounds: keep them clean and covered until they are healed.
- Pay attention to your mouth and teeth by adopting proper oral hygeine.
- Do not have any vaccinations unless you consult your doctor.
Avoid Food Contamination to Prevent Immunodeficiency
- Refrigerate leftovers.
- Peel all fruits and vegetables that are eaten raw, avoid foods that cannot be washed well like berries, and peel thick fruits and vegetables(such as melons) before slicing them.
- Wash your hands, cutlery and table tops before preparing food, especially when preparing raw meat, chicken and fish.
- Use separate chopping boards for vegetables, fruits and meat.
- Defrost safely: To defrost meat, leave it in the refrigerator or place it in the microwave, instead of leaving it to thaw outside.
- Cook meat, chicken and eggs thoroughly.
- Do not eat raw fish or shellfish, like oysters or sushi.
- Do not eat foods that have passed their expiry date.
- Avoid buffet restaurants, and especially salad bars.
Do not eat foods that show signs of mold, including cheese (blue cheese).