When you get chemo, your body is not always able to fight off infections the way it normally would. That’s because the therapy can lower the number of neutrophils (infection-fighting white blood cells) to dangerous levels, a condition known as neutropenia.
“Only a small percentage of people develop this problem, but there isn’t a way to know in advance who will fall into that group,” says Lillie Shockney, RN, BS, MAS, administrative director of the Johns Hopkins Breast Center and Cancer Survivorship Programs.
When neutropenia occurs and can’t be corrected, your doctor may delay your next treatment or order a dosage reduction. “That’s worrisome because studies demonstrating the benefit of chemo are based on taking it on schedule and at its full strength,” says Shockney. And if you develop an infection, “You may need to be hospitalized for a few days—so preventing or reversing neutropenia is critical.”
To stay safe…
1. Know your infection risk.
If you’re over age 65, you are more likely to develop an infection. Certain medical conditions can also boost your risk. Use the tool on the opposite page to see if you might have a higher risk of infection. Be sure to share it with your doctor.
2. Keep it in check.
Ask your oncologist what you can do to avoid infection and remain on track with your chemo.
3. Be alert for the signs of infection.
Refer to the opposite page for signs that warrant an immediate call to your doctor.
Fever? Act quickly!
It’s a medical emergency! Call your doctor right away. If you go to the ER, don’t sit there for too long. Tell hospital personnel immediately you’re on chemo and have a fever. Remember, an infection can be fatal and needs to be treated seriously.