Reducing your risk of infection

Cancer can prevent your immune system working as it should

Your immune system helps protect your body from infection and disease but it may not work as well as normal during and after cancer treatment. Treatments such as chemotherapy aim to stop cancer cells from growing and dividing but they also affect normal cells, such as white blood cells, which are part of your immune system. If you have a low number of white blood cells, you’re at a higher risk of infection or food poisoning.

If you have blood cancer, you are more likely to be ‘neutropenic’ (which means your white blood cell levels are very low) so you may have to be even more careful to avoid infection or food poisoning and will need specific advice from your doctor or dietitian.

The good news is that immune cells recover when treatment stops. You can also take some simple steps to protect your immune system and prevent infection.

How can I protect my immune system?

While you’re having cancer treatment, eating well and keeping active can help keep your immune system working at its best.

The best way to support your immune system is by making sure your body gets all the nutrients it needs from a balanced and varied diet, rather than focusing on specific foods. As well as eating plenty of vegetables and fruit, try to eat enough calories (energy) and protein, especially if you’ve lost weight.

How can I prevent infection?

Practising good food hygiene is very important to protect you from food poisoning. Make sure you:

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water before and after preparing, cooking and eating food.
  • Clean all worktops and chopping boards before and after cooking.
  • Check food is in date (especially food that has a ‘use by’ date) and doesn’t have any visible mould on it.
  • Try to avoid buying foods that are kept unpackaged, especially foods that you won’t cook before eating, such as bread and baked goods from bakeries, sandwich fillings in cafes and deli foods.
  • Keep raw meat and fish away from ready-to-eat foods, such as bread, salad and fruit, and prepare them using different chopping boards and utensils.
  • Store raw meat in a clean, sealed container on the bottom shelf of the fridge.
  • Wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly under cold running water before eating.
  • Check that food is heated through before you eat it.
  • Store food at the correct temperature and make sure you defrost and reheat foods safely.

Food to avoid

While you’re having cancer treatment, it’s also important to be careful with certain foods that are more likely to contain harmful bacteria. It’s normally best to avoid paté, raw or undercooked seafood and fish, and cheeses made from unpasteurised milk, such as brie and blue-veined cheeses. Speak to your doctor or dietitian for more specific advice.