Staying Healthy During Cancer Treatment

If you get chemotherapy to treat cancer, you’re more likely to get an infection. Learn how to prevent infections during chemotherapy, and about other ways to stay healthy.

Why Does Chemotherapy Raise My Risk of Infections?

1. Chemotherapy
Photo of a woman receiving chemotherapy

Chemotherapy drugs treat cancer by killing the fastest-growing cells in the body—both cancer cells and normal cells.

2. Neutropenia
Illustration of normal blood cells and blood cells with neutropenia

White blood cells help your body fight infections. Chemotherapy drugs kill cancer cells as well as healthy white blood cells, which are your body’s main defense against infection. This is a side effect called neutropenia.

3. Infection
Photo of a man taking his temperature because he feels sick

Germs enter your body. With fewer white blood cells, your body can’t kill the germs as well as it could before you started chemotherapy. So you’re more likely to get sick.

How Can I Lower My Chances of Getting an Infection During Chemotherapy?

To lower your risk of infection—

  • Wash your hands often, and ask your family, visitors, and health care providers to wash theirs, too.
  • Get a flu shot every year, and encourage your family and friends to get one. Ask your doctor if you need a pneumococcal shot and about the best types and timing of vaccines with your treatment.
  • Get the COVID-19 vaccine, plus any booster doses you may need to stay up-to-date.
  • Take any medications your doctor gives you.
  • Take a shower or a bath every day with warm water and mild soap.
  • Brush your teeth several times a day with a soft toothbrush.
  • Protect yourself from cuts: be very careful when using sharp items, and wear gloves when gardening or cleaning.
  • If you get a small cut, wash it thoroughly, put antibiotic cream on it, and cover it with a bandage.

Call your doctor right away if you notice any signs of an infection, especially a fever.

What Else Can I Do to Stay Healthy?

You can lower your risk of getting cancer again by making healthy choices like—

  • Staying away from tobacco. If you smoke, try to quit, and stay away from other people’s smoke.
  • Protecting your skin from overexposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun and avoiding tanning beds.
  • Eating lots of fruits and vegetables.
  • Keeping a healthy weight.
  • Being physically active.

Staying Mentally and Emotionally Healthy During Cancer Treatment

Photo of cancer survivor George Hilliard.

Three-time survivor George Hilliard shares his personal prescription for surviving cancer.

Being told you have cancer is scary. It’s normal to feel worried, sad, afraid, or even angry. Some treatments for cancer also can affect your feelings or make it hard for you to concentrate or remember things.

What Can I Do?

  • Talk to your doctor or other health care provider. Your health care team may be able to help, or they can refer you to mental health services.
  • Reach out for support to family members, friends, those who share your faith, a support group, or a psychologist.
  • Stay as active as you can. Physical activity has been linked to lower risk of depression among people who had cancer.

For more tips, see our Guide to Healthy Living: Emotional Health.

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