Sepsis and Cancer

By Contributing Writer - September 13, 2018

Did you know cancer patients are at a higher risk for a disorder that kills more people worldwide than prostate cancer, breast cancer and HIV/AIDS combined? It’s called sepsis. Sepsis occurs when the body’s immune system revs up to fight an infection but goes haywire instead, causing tissue damage, shock, organ failure or even death.

According to the Centers for Disease Control sepsis is on the rise. More than 1.6 million people in the United States are diagnosed with the disorder each year. That’s one person every 20 seconds, and that number is increasing by 8 percent each year.

Cancer patients are more susceptible to sepsis because they have weakened immune systems. Their frequent hospitalizations put them at an increased risk for developing an infection.

An infection can occur at any time. But when your body has very low levels of a certain type of white blood cells, called neutrophils, you are at an increased risk of developing an infection. For cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, this may be a real concern. Chemotherapy kills the fastest-growing cells in the body, regardless of whether they are good or bad cells. This means that chemotherapy attacks cancer cells as well as these infection-fighting white blood cells.

There is no single symptom of sepsis. Instead, it is a combination of symptoms that can include:

  • S – Shivering, fever or very cold

  • E – Extreme pain or general discomfort

  • P – Pale or discolored skin

  • S – Sleepy, difficult to rouse, confused

  • I – “I feel like I might die”

  • S – Shortness of breath

Since sepsis is a bad reaction to an infection, the Centers for Disease Control recommend preventing infections by:

  • Washing your hands often and asking others around you to do the same
  • Avoiding crowded places and people who are sick
  • Talking to your doctor about getting a flu shot or other vaccinations
  • Taking a bath or shower every day (unless told otherwise)
  • Using an unscented lotion to try to keep your skin from getting dry or cracked
  • Cleaning your teeth and gums with a soft toothbrush
  • Using a mouthwash to prevent mouth sores (if your doctor recommends one)
  • Not sharing food, drink cups, utensils or other personal items, such as toothbrushes
  • Cooking meat and eggs all the way through to kill any germs
  • Carefully washing raw fruits and vegetables
  • Protecting your skin from direct contact with animal urine or feces
  • Washing your hands immediately after touching an animal or removing its waste, even after wearing gloves
  • Using gloves for gardening

Many people recover from sepsis, while others are left with long-lasting effects such as loss of limbs or organ dysfunction like kidney failure. Other after-effects are less obvious, such as memory loss, anxiety or depression.

If you suspect you may have sepsis, call your doctor immediately or go to an emergency room. Sepsis is a medical emergency and the time from identifying symptoms to getting treatment is of the essence. It’s critical to let the hospital staff know you are a cancer patient and that you are concerned about sepsis.


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