Infections in People With Cancer

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How cancer can increase risk of infection

Cancer cells can get into the bone marrow where blood cells are made. The cancer cells then compete with the normal bone marrow cells for space and nutrients. If too many normal marrow cells are destroyed or pushed out of the bone marrow, the few cells that are left will not be able to make enough white blood cells (WBCs) to fight infection.

Cancer can also damage other parts of the immune system. A tumor can grow through the skin or mucous membranes, breaking natural barriers and allowing germs to get in. Tumors may also reduce blood flow to the normal tissues by pressing on them or their blood supply. Tumors in the lungs may block normal mucus drainage, which can lead to infections. And tissues that have been damaged by cancer are more prone to infections.

Cancer cells can also release chemicals that change normal immune cells. This is a well-known effect of many cancers that start in immune system cells, such as lymphomas, leukemias, and multiple myeloma. It can happen with other cancers, too.

Last Medical Review: 11/06/2013
Last Revised: 11/06/2013