Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I did not fully understand when I’d see people wearing medical masks in public. Not only did I not understand it, but I don’t think I saw it much. I’d see the occasional tourist wearing a mask, and I understood that. The air we breathe isn’t the cleanest.
But I never grasped the idea of neutropenia, which is an abnormally low count of a type of white blood cell (neutrophils.) Our white blood cells are our protectors. They fight any disease or illness that our body could be harboring. If your white blood count is abnormally low, then fighting off bad germs would be extremely hard, and would make any illness you catch potentially dangerous.
Chemotherapy treatments can cause you to go neutropenic. In some cases, your doctor will suggest that you take shots such as Neupogen (filgrastim) or Neulasta (pegfilgrastim) to boost your white blood count, so your body has a fighting chance to ward off illnesses being carried by the people around you.
If you are in neutropenia limbo, and your doctor didn’t suggest either of the shots I mentioned, or if you just want to take extra precautions, there are many ways to avoid getting sick as you go through treatments that leave you immuno-compromised.
Wear a mask. Sometimes you may not be sure if the people around you are ill. You could be at a restaurant or using a public bathroom. In order to be extra safe, I highly recommend wearing a mask in situations when you are unsure, and definitely wear a mask if you know you’ll be encountering someone who is sick.
Stay away from children and babies. Children are little germ carriers! Their immune systems, like babies, aren’t fully developed so they normally catch anything around them, subsequently making it easier for you to catch something when you are around them. Babies are similar. Something that most people don’t know is that you also should stay away from children, babies, and adults who have been vaccinated recently. Vaccinations usually are an injection of a live virus, which you could catch.
Say no to the buffet. By the time you hit the buffet, there is a chance that many others’ germs have touched or breathed on the food you will put on your plate. If you can’t avoid it (let’s say you’re at a wedding or your friends just really wanted to hit up the all-you-can-eat buffet), your best bet is to talk to the kitchen staff and see if they can make up a plate for you before it is brought out for the rest of the germ-infested population!
Don’t use tampons. Tampons have risk of infections, like urinary tract infections and toxic shock syndrome. By wearing tampons you are upping the chances of either of those possibilities. Tampons also tend to sometimes create tears, inviting unwanted germs into unwanted areas.
Say no to sushi. This tends to be one that most people have a hard time with. I know my friends and I did. At the time I was still eating fish, and could spend hours at the sushi buffet (two big no-no’s!). Sushi is normally raw. Raw and unpasteurized foods heighten your chances of catching an illness. I’m pretty sure pregnant women aren’t allowed to eat sushi, either. Some say it’s okay to eat cooked sushi, but I’ll leave that up to you. I tried to be extra safe to avoid any chance of any complications during my treatment. At my remission party we had a huge sushi boat … it was worth it in the end ;).
While we’re at it, say “no” to everything raw and unpasteurized. Yup, salads, too, (at least salads that you’re not making yourself). I was told by the nutritionist at my cancer center to not only say no to salads, but also to say no to anything that is pre-cut at the supermarket. So, that meant I couldn’t get pre-cut fruit salads, or anything like that. Apparently you never know who’s cutting it and what kind of cough they may be having that day.
Hand sanitizer. People visit, kids might be unavoidable, and you may need to go grocery shopping. At the house I was living in throughout treatment, we made sure to keep hand sanitizer pumps in all locations. My five-year-old niece knew to always clean her hands around me. When guests would visit, my family directed them straight to the hand sanitizer pumps. I always carried one around with me because I never knew what germs would be on the shopping cart, or on the arm rest at the movie theater.
Basically, be mindful. Try to be observant of your surroundings and the kinds of things that outweigh each other. Don’t be too hard on yourself. If you are really craving sushi, go ahead and get cooked sushi or consult your doctor. Actually, yeah, your best bet is to ALWAYS consult your doctor. I remember at one check-up, my white blood count was actually at normal levels so my oncologist gave me permission to go ahead and eat sushi (but it had to be that day because we for sure knew my counts were normal that day). I still ended up getting cooked sushi because I did not want to risk it. I did drink homemade smoothies during treatment, and my family and I made sure to wash the produce very well.
Better safe than sorry, but please be easy on yourself and continue to live your life!
Note: Lymphoma News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Lymphoma News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to lymphoma.