What to Do When Cancer and Infection Team Up

Cancer, also called malignancy or malignant tumor, is an abnormal growth of cells. Cancerous tumors crowd out healthy cells and prevent affected organs from functioning well. They also grow and spread easily because they receive nutrients intended for healthy cells. Think of them as pirates and conquerors who pillage and take over, establishing their presence wherever they go.

Of the many effects of malignancy, one of the most debilitating is the weakening of the immune system, which primarily works to protect the body against diseases. Once cancer spreads to the bone marrow, the bone marrow cannot produce enough healthy white blood cells to fight infections.

Some cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and steroid medications, are given to kill or prevent the spread of malignant tumors but, ironically, they have an unusual side effect. They temporarily weaken the immune system by also affecting the function of bone marrow. Another common procedure, radiation, can cause breaks in the skin, disrupting the body's first line of defense against invading microorganisms.

The combined effect of cancer and the side effects of some of the treatments mentioned above destroy the body's natural protection against harmful organisms. As a result, the patient gets sick.

The bottom line is, cancer patients are very much prone to infections, and this should not be taken lightly.

If you are a caregiver working with cancer patients, be extra vigilant and meticulous in making sure that the patient is not exposed to disease-causing microorganisms.

Here are some tips to remember and follow when cancer and infection decide to team up:

1. Prevention is key.

The best way to tackle infection is to prevent the patient from getting infected in the first place. It all boils down to avoiding their exposure to infectious materials and sick individuals.

This is where thorough handwashing is of utmost importance. Both the caregiver and patient, as well as every other person in contact with the patient, should strictly follow proper handwashing techniques to prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria.

Another step is to help the patient improve their health by making sure they eat the right types and amount of food. As a rule of thumb, their plates should be filled with mostly fruits and vegetables and no cancer-causing processed foods whatsoever.

Also, remember to keep the patient hydrated and ensure that they are in a well-ventilated room with lots of fresh air. Help them get restful sleep at night and encourage them to go outside for some early morning sunshine.

Another aspect of cancer care is maintaining cleanliness everywhere. Give the patient a proper bath, clean their immediate surroundings, and disinfect surfaces and equipment.

Lastly, discourage people with infectious diseases from being in close contact with the patient. If the interaction cannot be avoided, ask the patient to wear an appropriate mask as protection.

2. When you suspect an infection of any kind, act fast.

However careful we might be as caregivers in protecting our patients, they can sometimes still get an infection. And, for people with cancer, there is no such thing as a simple cough and cold. Infections that healthy individuals recover from naturally can be disastrous for those with weakened defenses.

The first thing to do is learn how to identify possible infections by knowing the common signs and symptoms. If a patient catches a disease, they will likely say they don’t feel well or are feeling a bit run down. They’ll start to run a fever, too. Then, there’ll be new and worsening discomforts, such as cough and cold, a bad-looking wound, or a headache.

What should the caregiver do if they suspect that a patient caught an infection? Do not waste a second. Contact your supervisor or the patient's physician immediately.

3. Assist the patient with follow-up visits to the doctor, too.

Be observant of improving or worsening signs and symptoms, and promptly report and document your observations to the supervisor, nurse, or physician.

Once the patient has received medical help, follow every detail of the care plan, especially in making sure that the patient is taking their medications at the right time, without missing a dose. Caregivers should also see to the patient's comfort and encourage them to be vocal about what they feel.

The danger of infections in cancer patients is all too real and can even lead to a patient's death. Always work with the healthcare team and ask for the patient's cooperation for the most positive health outcomes.