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White blood cells (WBCs) are an important part of the body’s immune system because they fight infections in the body and heal damaged tissues. The normal range for WBCs is between 4,000 and 11,000 per microliter of blood. To know your WBC range, please consult with your doctor or care team.
Certain types of cancer treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and stem cell or bone marrow transplant will lower your WBC count. It can take months to get the WBC count back into the normal range after treatment. Thankfully, there are precautions patients with weakened immune systems can take to help prevent infections.
*Note that the following guidelines are specifically for patients with a WBC count of 500-4,000 per ml blood. Try the following five guidelines to protect a weakened immune system:
1. Good Hand Hygiene: Always wash hands after using the restroom, before eating, and after touching animals to remove germs from the hands. People often touch their mouth, eyes, and nose without even realizing it, making it easy for germs to enter the body. Have hand sanitizer with you at all times to make handwashing a habit!
2. Practice Food Safety: Keep hot foods hot (warmer than 140°F), and cold foods cold (cooler than 40°F). Bacteria can quickly multiply between 40-140°F, so it is best to keep food outside of this temperature range. Eating certain raw foods increases the risk of getting sick from foodborne illnesses. Avoid raw or lightly-cooked meats and eggs. Cook meat until it’s no longer pink and the juices run clear, and if eating out, avoid buffets, fountain drinks, and salad bars.
3. Get help to quit smoking: Do not take up smoking when undergoing cancer treatment. If you were smoking prior to a cancer diagnosis, try to quit or to limit it. Cigarette and e-cigarette smoke contains harmful chemicals that can further weaken the immune system, making the body more prone to infections. Contact the Swedish Cancer Institute Smoking Cessation Program at (206) 386-6800 for more information.
4. Limit exposure to pets and plants: Wash your hands immediately after petting any animals. Pets can have germs on them that might not make them sick but can make a person with a weakened immune system ill. If you have a pet, avoid contact with pet urine and feces as illnesses can be spread through them. Plants also have fungi and bacteria on them that can be harmful to patients with weakened immune systems. Avoid activities that will put you in direct contact with soil and plants, such as gardening or mowing.
5. Vaccinate: Consider getting a flu shot, but talk to your care team before getting any vaccines. Generally, vaccines are not recommended for patients during cancer treatment because vaccines need an immune response to work, and a patient’s immune response may be weakened during treatment. However, the flu shot is often recommended to cancer patients because the flu is a common illness that can cause very serious complications in patients with weakened immune systems. Those in close contact with a patient are encouraged to get their flu shot.
For questions regarding any of these steps, please contact your care team. Consider the following reputable resources for more information on these topics:
Chemo and Nutritional Education
American Cancer Society (n.d.). Food safety during cancer treatment.
American Cancer Society (n.d.). “Is it safe to keep my pet while I’m being treated for cancer?”
American Cancer Society (n.d.). Vaccination during treatment.
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