Julie Holt, Cancer Information Nurse, Cancer Society,Wellington
If you have cancer many types of treatment weaken your immune system, making it harder to fight off infection. We know this can be a worrying time especially in the era of Covid-19. However, this reduction in your immunity is generally temporary and will improve in the weeks and months following your treatment. There are ways that you can keep yourself as healthy as possible while on treatment and this blog will discuss things you can do.
Cancers that affect the blood and bone marrow such as lymphoma, leukaemia and myeloma, can prevent the body’s immune system from working properly. For example, they may do this by preventing the bone marrow from producing enough healthy white blood cells. If you have one of these cancers, taking extra care to guard against infection and following the recommendations below to improve your general health, can help a lot.
You may be interested in how your immune system works – the first thing to know is that it is highly complex – it contains hundreds of different types of cells moving around the body doing a variety of jobs such as identifying invaders, carrying messages, devouring known bacteria or learning how to fight new threats to your health. For detailed information about the immune system see Macmillan Cancer Support https://www.macmillan.org.uk/cancer-information-and-support/impacts-of-cancer/infection#how_does_the_immune_system_work
While there are no shortcuts to boosting your immune system, there is general agreement that the simple, relatively low-cost message of living a healthy lifestyle, is a great way to start giving your immune system the upper hand.
So, what can you do?
Choosing a healthy lifestyle as much as you can while you are having cancer treatment, and after treatment finishes, will help you in many ways.
However, note that it’s important to follow your cancer care team’s advice on diet and exercise when you’re having treatment as your nutrition and activity needs may change during this time.
People caring for you will also benefit from looking after their own health. The best things to help you and your loved ones stay healthy include:
- Eating a balanced diet
- Keeping active
- Getting good sleep
- Not smoking
- Limiting or avoiding alcohol
- Reducing chronic stress
- Avoiding people who are feeling unwell
- Having the annual flu vaccine (talk to your cancer treatment team for advice)
A healthy diet – good nutrition helps provide your body with the micronutrients (essential vitamins and minerals) it needs and is a factor in helping you stay healthy. Try to get your nutrition from food sources and avoid supplements (unless prescribed by your doctor).
For those who are having cancer treatment or recovering from treatment the new Cancer Society booklet Living Well with Cancer – eating well https://wellington.cancernz.org.nz/assets/Uploads/Eating-well-with-cancer-web2.pdf contains comprehensive, up-to-date information on healthy eating and cancer.
Keeping active – regular exercise can improve your general health as well as helping your immune system. It also improves your circulation which can help the immune system do its job more efficiently. Another new booklet from the Cancer Society has some good tips for keeping active: https://wellington.cancernz.org.nz/assets/Cancer-information-2/Living-well/Keeping-active-2020-web-version-ID-28905.pdf
Getting good sleep – According to the National Sleep Foundation (USA), without enough sleep, your body makes fewer cytokines, a type of protein that targets infection and inflammation needed to create an immune response, making you more vulnerable to infection. Cytokines are both produced and released during sleep, so if you’re not getting enough sleep, you could be missing out on both counts. Chronic sleep loss can make the flu vaccine less effective by reducing your body’s ability to respond. For sleep tips see our previous nurses’ blog https://www.cancerchatnz.org.nz/tips-to-help-you-sleep/
Reducing chronic stress – According to the National Cancer Institute (USA) research has shown that people who experience intense and long-term (chronic) stress can have digestive problems, fertility problems, urinary problems, and a weakened immune system. People who experience chronic stress are also more prone to viral infections such as the flu or common cold and to have headaches, sleep trouble, depression, and anxiety.
Ongoing stress can affect your relationships and may lead you to reach for that extra glass or more of wine, cigarettes or the fast food that you’ve been avoiding.
Good ways to reduce stress include finding a sense of calm through exercise – a gentle walk, yoga, mindfulness, or meditation. Some people find listening to their favourite music helps. Phone us on 0800 CANCER (226237) for more information on ways to manage stress.
As well as the strategies above make sure you follow good hygiene measures. Covid-19 has given us a good awareness of these! Practising careful handwashing, and/or using hand sanitiser, avoiding touching your face and keeping to the social distancing measures in place, as recommended by government and health officials will help keep you safe.