Protecting Yourself During Chemotherapy
Important Measures to Prevent Infection

More of this Feature
• Part 2: Neutropenia: The Danger Signs
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• CDC Brochure on Preventing Infection
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by Laura Dolson

Donna was a 37 year old athletic, active woman, when the unthinkable happened...cancer. Determined not to be slowed down, she recovered from surgery at a record pace. When it came time for chemotherapy, she approached it with a fierce determination. "I was not going to let those chemicals make me sick", she says. After a few days of mild nausea, she felt that she was back to normal. Looking back, she says, "I truly thought it was all a state of mind, and that with determination I would not be slowed down". Thus, she was not happy when at the beginning of the second week after her treatment she began to feel unwell, with a mild fever. Her partner urged her to see the doctor, aware that infections could become a major problem for chemo patients. Since she was feeling worse the next day, she did go to her doctor. After an examination and blood test, she was ordered to go to the hospital. Donna was horrified. "The HOSPITAL?? No WAY was I that sick!", she says of her thoughts at the time. She went into her office to finish up some work instead.

One day later, Donna did go to the hospital - with her white blood cell count so low that her body was in a crisis of infection. "I was so foolish to wait", she now admits. "I could easily have died."

Most chemotherapy patients don't have to worry about problems this severe, however, everyone receiving chemotherapy should be aware of infection prevention methods, as well as the danger signs of a low white blood cell count (neutropenia).

Why are chemotherapy patients prone to infection?

The purpose of chemotherapy is to kill cancer cells. The way most chemotherapeutic agents accomplish this it to attack the cells of the body which are multiplying most rapidly. Unfortunately, this includes normal tissues and cells which rapidly multiply, including the hair roots, the intestines, and the lining of the mouth. Most of the common side effects of chemotherapy are caused by this type of damage.

Blood cells are another type of cell constantly being replaced. Thus, patients may become anemic (from too few red blood cells) or bleed more easily (from too few platelets). The third type of blood cells, the white cells, are instrumental to the body in fighting infections, and when the white blood cell count is low, this can become a problem. Neutropenia means the neutrophil (an important type of white blood cell) count is too low to adequately fight infections. The next page contains important information about neutropenia, including how to recognize the signs and extra precautions to take if you have it.

Even a mildly depressed white cell count can predispose a person to infections, and all chemotherapy patients should make extra sure of good hygiene during this time:

Measures Which All Chemotherapy Patients Should Take

Wash Your Hands - You've heard it time and again, and it is really important. Wash them early, wash them often! Get all the surfaces, use soap and warm water, and spend at least 20 seconds each time. When to wash?

- Before and after eating and kitchen preparation

- Before and after using the toilet (yes, I said before!)

- After handling money or other "public objects"

- After handling animals, cleaning cages and cat boxes, etc.

- If you are known to have a low white count, anyone visiting you should wash their hands as well.

Other Hygiene Measures

- Wipe "front to back" when using the toilet. (Consider gentle cleaning with a wet washcloth)

- Daily shower or bath

- Gentle but thorough dental care after every meal

Avoid Breaks in the Skin

- Use gloves when gardening.

- Use an electric shaver rather than a blade.

- Use care when using sharp instruments, including nail scissors.

- Care for cuts promptly, washing carefully and covering with bandage and antibiotic cream.

Avoid Sources of Infection - mainly people and mishandled food

- Avoid people with colds or other infectious illnesses

- Avoid children who may be exposed to childhood infections

- Avoid large crowds - try to shop or go to the theatre at less-crowded times

- Use proper kitchen precautions - keep "hot food hot" and "cold food cold", cook eggs and meat well enough to kill bacteria, and keep counters, cutting boards, and utensils clean. Consider using a disinfectant such as diluted bleach on items which have touched uncooked meat products.

Next page > The Danger Signs of Neutropenia >



Copyright © 2001 by Laura Dolson. All rights reserved. Please submit reprint requests to

The material on this page and Web site is for informational and educational purposes only, and should not substitute for medical advice. Anyone having questions about the application of information appearing here to a specific person or situation should obtain advice from a qualified physician.