- What are infections and who is at risk?
- What are signs of infection in people with cancer?
- How does your body normally resist infections?
- What makes people with cancer more likely to get infections?
- Cancer itself can increase infection risk
- Cancer treatments can increase infection risk
- Poor nutrition can affect infection risk in people with cancer
- Low white blood cell (neutrophil) counts and the risk of infection
- To learn more
What makes people with cancer more likely to get infections?
Some types of cancer can damage the immune and blood systems or change the way they work. For instance, lymphoma (Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin) and certain types of leukemia start in immune system cells. They change the immune system cells so that cells that once protected your body begin to interfere with the normal way your immune system works. Many other types of cancer can also affect the immune system.
In most cases it’s not the cancer itself but the cancer treatment that changes the immune system. Treatments can cause short- or long-term damage. For example, long-term damage happens when immune system organs such as the spleen are removed. A splenectomy (surgery to remove the spleen) is sometimes done to remove cancer or learn how much it has spread. On the other hand, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and chemotherapy, either alone or in combination can lead to short-term immune system damage. Bone marrow or stem cell transplant uses very strong treatments to kill cancer cells. This treatment also kills immune system cells, which can worsen and prolong the risk of infection. Sometimes this damage can last for months after treatment ends.
Some people with cancer have a higher risk of infection because of the changes in their body’s defense systems. Cancer and cancer treatments can affect these systems in different ways. People with cancer might be more likely to get infections because of:
All of these can increase your risk of infection by causing low white blood cell counts and a weak immune system (discussed in a later section).
Last Medical Review: 02/16/2015
Last Revised: 02/25/2015