Infections can be easily contracted by anyone. They are caused by pathogens in the environment. Exposure to these microorganisms can afflict us with various health complications. And these complications might pose a bigger threat to those who have cancer and those who are undergoing treatment.
Why are Cancer Patients at a Higher Risk?
Anyone can easily get an infection. We can get it from a little cut, perhaps from what we ate, or even what we might have touched. For cancer patients, the risks of having an infection and its effects dramatically increases.
The type of cancer and the type of treatment play a major role in the risk of infection in cancer patients. Some treatments might pose a greater risk than others. But all the same, if you’re a cancer patient undergoing treatment, infections can be a matter of emergency.
Knowing how our bodies fight infections would help us understand why cancer patients are at a higher risk than a healthy individual.
It is common knowledge that the skin is our largest organ. It also is our first line of defense against foreign bodies such as germs, bacteria, and viruses that can cause infections. If there are cracks or breaks on your skin, that makes it easier for foreign bodies to enter our system, start reproducing and causing problems.
Aside from our skin, mucous membranes act the same way. These membranes have moist pinkish flesh that protects us from what we breathe, eat, drink, or whatever comes in contact with our orifices. Examples of these membranes include eyelids, nose, mouth, throat, digestive system, urethra, and vagina.
After the skin and mucous membranes, the next line of defense we have is our immune system. The immune system is very complex. It consists of cells, chemical reactions (or signals), and organs. Together they help identify and destroy pathogens and foreign microbes that have managed to enter our system, but the white blood cells mostly do the work.
From within our bone marrow, white blood cells are matured from the stem cells (some stem cells grow into red blood cells, and platelets which are not parts of the immune system).
Now, these white blood cells also have other different variations. Some examples include:
- Sometimes being referred to as key infection-fighters, Neutrophils fix tissues that were damaged and aids in fighting off infections. Low neutrophil counts could mean higher risks of getting an infection.
- Another type of white blood cell is Lymphocytes. They create antibodies. lymphocytes can also mark specific foreign bodies and signal other antibodies to destroy or kill pathogens.
- Monocytes and macrophages, on the other hand, can help lymphocytes recognize a foreign body. They also destroy pathogens that were already marked by lymphocytes.
These cells can help identify and remember pathogens that enter our system and their main goal is to get rid of these foreign microorganisms that can cause complications to our health.
How do cancer and cancer treatments increase the risks of infections you say?
As mentioned, your skin, mucous membranes, and immune system defend your body from germs, bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms that can promote getting a serious infection. Certain types of cancers and cancer treatments can prove to be damaging to your bodily defense.
The Cancer itself
Cancer cells can become tumors. Some types of tumors can cause breaks and leave parts of your skin and membranes exposed to pathogens and disease-causing microorganisms. Some kinds of cancer, like lymphoma (both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin) and leukemia, cause cancer cells to grow on the bone marrow itself, affecting the production of white blood cells and may cause your immune system to function abnormally.
Cancer treatments that increase the risk of infections
Aside from the variety of cancer that you have, certain cancer treatments have been observed to increase the risks of getting infections. It may or may not be indirectly caused by the type of treatment itself, but it has been evident that most cancer treatments nowadays do amplify the risk of getting infections.
What are the treatments observed to increase the probability of getting infections?
Surgery, apart from treatment, may also be used to stage or diagnose people with cancer. Any wound from surgery is an easy breeding ground for infections. Aside from that, cancer patients that are required to undergo major surgical procedures would certainly be given anesthesia, which can make you lose consciousness. It is also believed that it may play a role in the recovery of your immune system since it suppresses the immune system within hours of surgery.
Some factors that may raise the possibility of infection after surgery includes:
- Duration of hospital stay
- The size of the wound caused by the surgery
- Duration of the operation
While some chemo drugs affect your immune system more than others, white blood cells are the most affected by this type of treatment. Chemo is the most common cause of cancer patients having a weak immune system. However, chemotherapy’s effects on your immune system also depend on several other factors.
Radiation not only damages your skin but it can also cause disorder to your immune system. Nowadays, radiation treatments require multiple visits rather than being given in a single larger dosage, resulting in less immune suppression, and skin or tissue damage. This treatment is commonly administered to only one part of the body, but the TBI or total body irradiation would expose your whole body and may cause a severe reduction in your white blood cell count.
Other treatments that can escalate risks of infections include Immunotherapy and Stem cell transplant. Both directly affect your immune system.
Other factor correlated to the risks of infection:
When your body fights any ailments, it needs proper nutrition to make new cells and repair the damaged ones caused by the treatment. That’s why learning about proper diet and its correlation to cancer and cancer treatment may prove to be beneficial during your treatment.