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Improving Cancer Survivors’ Physical Health

Risk for Infection

Photo of a woman washing her hands

As a cancer survivor, you may have received a lot of information about your treatment and your journey to recovery. Chemotherapy and radiation cause many changes in the body as they destroy cancer cells. One major change is that these treatments weaken your immune system. Cancer survivors who are treated with chemotherapy are more likely to get infections, such as bacterial infections, through everyday activities or from health care settings. One out of every 10 cancer survivors who receives chemotherapy gets an infection that requires a hospital visit.

If you have cancer now or have had cancer in the past, you are also at higher risk for complications from the seasonal flu or influenza, and may have a higher risk for pneumococcal disease.

Ways to Improve Health During Treatment

You can lower your risk for infection by—

  • Washing your hands often and well.
  • Brushing your teeth several times a day with a soft toothbrush.
  • Taking a shower or a bath every day using warm water and mild soap.
  • Protecting your skin from cuts and scrapes.
  • Calling your doctor or nurse if you notice wounds or signs of infection on your skin, like swelling, drainage, or redness.

To help lower your risk for the flu and pneumococcal disease—

  • Get the seasonal flu shot and encourage your family and friends to get one, too.
  • Ask your doctor if you need a pneumococcal shot.
  • Avoid close contact with others who may be sick if you are getting chemotherapy or have a compromised immune system.

Risks for Recurrence, New Cancers, and Other Health Problems

Some behaviors, experiences, or other factors increase some survivors’ risk of having a first cancer come back, getting a new cancer, and having other health problems. Factors that increase such risks for cancer survivors include—

  • Having side effects of treatment.
  • Having genetic factors, such as those that can cause hereditary breast and ovarian cancer and Lynch syndrome.
  • Engaging in unhealthy behaviors like smoking, obesity, and lack of physical activity.
  • Engaging in other risk factors that contributed to the first cancer.

Ways to Improve Health After Treatment

Photo of a couple hiking

After treatment ends, follow-up care—routine checkups and other cancer screenings—is important. Follow-up care can help find new or returning cancers early and look for side effects of cancer treatment.

Talk to your doctor about which screening tests are recommended for you to look for signs of your first cancer (called surveillance) or new cancers. The screening tests you need depends on many factors such as the type of cancer you had, your age, and gender.

You can lower your risk of getting a new or second cancer by making healthy choices like—

  • Avoiding tobacco.
  • Limiting alcohol use.
  • Avoiding too much exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun and tanning beds.
  • Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
  • Keeping a healthy weight.
  • Being physically active.