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Immunosuppression: What It Means for Cancer Patients

One of the many potential side effects of cancer and its treatments is a suppressed immune system, or immunosuppression.

Immunosuppression is a reduction in the body’s ability to fight infection and disease. The immune system’s job is to defend the body, but that power can be suppressed by disease, medications, poor nutrition, or other health problems. When your immune system is not working properly, you can get sick easily and have trouble getting over illnesses.

Fox Chase medical oncologist Anthony Olszanski, MD, RPhFox Chase medical oncologist Anthony Olszanski, MD, RPhFox Chase medical oncologist Anthony Olszanski, MD, RPh, has the answers for some common questions about cancer and immunosuppression:

Q: What should cancer patients know about immunosuppression?

A: Some cancers and cancer treatments can cause immunosuppression, but how much someone’s immune system will be affected is different for each patient.

“We always tell our patients that there are different degrees of immunosuppression, and not all cancer therapies cause it,” Olszanski said. “Before assuming you are immunosuppressed, be sure to ask your doctor so you understand what those risks are.”

In general, surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy can increase your risk of infection, and individuals undergoing these treatments are often at high risk for immunosuppression.

“But if cancer patients are undergoing immunotherapy as part of their treatment plan, they may not become immunosuppressed at all,” Olszanski said. “Immunotherapies actually encourage immune response.”

Q: How can people with compromised immune systems stay healthy?

A: If you’re a cancer patient who is immunosuppressed, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and activities. You may also want to adopt some of these healthy habits:

Wash your hands: “Good personal hygiene is the most critical aspect of keeping yourself healthy and clear of infections,” Olszanski said. “Wash your hands frequently. From a medical standpoint, it can’t be done enough.” It is recommended that individuals wash their hands vigorously with soap and water for 20 seconds. If soap and water aren’t available, using hand sanitizer can be a good alternative.

Keep your distance from people who are ill: “Love is the best medicine, and we want patients to feel they can interact with their friends and family normally during treatment,” Olszanski said. However, if someone is sick, it’s best to practice some distancing (no hugging, kissing, or close contact) while being in their presence.

Don’t hesitate to call your doctor: If you’re experiencing new symptoms or have questions about your immune system, be sure to contact your care team. “We are here for you and want to know if you have new symptoms,” Olszanski said. “Call and talk to a triage nurse or your doctor so we can decide if you need medical care or if you can treat yourself at home.”

Think about the timing of other medical treatments: If you’re on a schedule for cancer treatment, there may be specific times during that schedule that are better for other medical treatments (such as getting a dental cleaning, vaccines, or podiatric procedures). If you need to schedule another type of treatment, it is always a good idea to talk to your care team first.

Ask your care team about your activities: Some everyday behaviors can put individuals with suppressed immune systems at risk. “Avoid things like gardening—digging in the dirt can put you at risk for exposure to bacteria and fungi.” Olszanski said. “Some of the things we don’t think about can put us at risk.” When in doubt, talk to your care team—they understand your individual situation and can help you make smart decisions.

While it’s always important to protect yourself and your immune system, when you are undergoing cancer treatment, it is especially crucial. Taking some precautions and being aware of your risk for immunosuppression can make all the difference for your health.