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How to Protect Your Immune System While Undergoing Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is an effective cancer treatment, but it also causes side effects and a weakened immune system in many patients. Fortunately, there are ways patients can protect their immune systems during the chemotherapy treatment process. Regional Cancer Care Associates (RCCA) provides cancer treatments and related services, including chemotherapy, to patients in New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, and the Washington, D.C., area. Here, RCCA shares ways patients can safeguard their immune systems during chemotherapy.  

Person with hair loss from chemotherapy smiling outside on a sunny day

What Is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy, commonly referred to as chemo, is a treatment that uses medicines to help treat diseases, mainly cancer. It targets the cancer cells and can work in a few ways, including:

  • Killing the cancer cells
  • Preventing them from growing
  • Slowing down cancer cell growth
  • Relieving pain and side effects

As chemotherapy drugs act against cancerous cells, they also can hurt healthy cells and cause side effects. Managing these side effects as effectively as possible is key to helping patients receive needed therapy while maintaining quality of life. Finding this balance is particularly important given the central role that chemotherapy plays in treating many malignancies, including:

Potential side effects of chemo include fatigue, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, and increased risk of infections due to a lowered immune system defense. Chemotherapy treatments are usually scheduled with breaks in between doses so the patient’s body can recover from the side effects. It is important to note, however, that not all patients experience all of the potential side effects of chemotherapy. Further, the severity of side effects can differ significantly from person to person and from one round of chemotherapy to another.

Bolstering the Immune System during Chemo

When a patient is undergoing chemotherapy, he or she may experience feelings of fatigue, weakness, and low energy. Patients may also be worried about contracting infections because of their weakened immune system. Luckily, there are steps patients can take to enhance their immune systems and decrease their chances of infection. These include:

Eating Nutritious Foods

Eating a healthy diet consisting of nutritious foods, vitamins, and minerals is an important way to help protect your immune system during chemotherapy. To maintain their immune system and reduce the chances of infection, patients should eat a diet with enough protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, antioxidants, and fiber. Some examples of foods to eat during chemo include chicken, hard-boiled eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and other vitamin- and protein-rich foods.

Getting Exercise

Getting exercise during cancer treatments like chemo may be hard for some patients, but physical activity is beneficial for the immune system. Regular exercise has been shown to improve brain and body function, physical health, immune function, and more. Exercise can also help reduce other side effects patients may experience from cancer or its treatment, including fatigue.

Quitting Smoking

Everyone knows that smoking is bad for the body, but smoking cigarettes is especially detrimental to patients with cancer. Smoking can damage an immune system that is already weakened by chemo, further compromising its ability to fight infections. To help their immune system be as strong as possible, patients should quit smoking during (and after) chemotherapy. Tobacco smoke can also impact the effectiveness of certain chemotherapy drugs by changing how the body metabolizes them. For help with smoking cessation, patients can speak with their doctor or join a support group.

Practicing Infection Prevention

Because chemotherapy may temporarily decrease the amount of infection-fighting white blood cells (WBCs) in the body, the immune system can’t ward off infections as well as it otherwise would. Patients undergoing chemo can take extra precautions to avoid infections, such as:

  • Regularly washing their hands to kill germs
  • Practicing good food safety habits (washing fruits and veggies, cooking foods completely, etc.) to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses
  • Avoiding large crowds of people or wearing a face mask in crowded areas
  • Getting a yearly flu shot and other necessary vaccines approved by their oncologist
  • Staying away from people who are sick

Sleeping Well

Getting adequate sleep is another way for patients to boost their immune systems during chemotherapy. A standard seven to nine hours of sleep helps strengthen the immune system in patients undergoing chemo. Some patients may experience sleep problems like insomnia during chemotherapy, but their medical teams should be able to suggestive effective strategies for obtaining enough sleep.

Managing StressBottom of Form

Receiving a cancer diagnosis and going through treatment can be stressful. However, patients undergoing chemotherapy should try their best to manage their stress levels. Increased stress can cause the immune system to weaken even further. Options for managing stress include therapy, joining a support group, exercising regularly, meditating, or – if you are religious – praying.  

Chemotherapy treatment can be tough on the body, but taking the above actions can help patients manage their symptoms and protect their immune systems.

Contact RCCA to Request an Oncology Appointment

Patients with cancer who need comprehensive cancer care close to home can trust Regional Cancer Care Associates. RCCA offers innovative treatment options for patients with cancer and blood disorders at more than 20 locations throughout New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, and the Washington, D.C., area. Our experienced team of oncologists, hematologists, and other specialists is dedicated to helping patients choose the best treatment option for them, whether it is chemotherapy or another option. Request an appointment with an oncology specialist today.

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For more information or to schedule an appointment,
call 844-346-7222. You can also schedule an appointment by calling the RCCA location nearest you.

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Regional Cancer Care Associates is one of fewer than 200 medical practices in the country selected to participate in the Oncology Care Model (OCM); a recent Medicare initiative aimed at improving care coordination and access to and quality of care for Medicare beneficiaries undergoing chemotherapy treatment.