By now, most of us are familiar with the most dominant characteristics of the Coronavirus. It is much more contagious than the common flu virus, symptoms may vary from severe difficulty breathing, blood clots, and gastrointestinal distress to temporary loss of smell or no clinical symptoms at all. And it is most threatening to individuals over 60, people with certain pre-existing conditions, and individuals with compromised immune systems.
If you have cancer, you likely fall under the immunocompromised category and should be dedicating extra attention to the preventative measures you are taking to protect your immune system – especially as the country begins to reopen. Immunocompromised, sometimes also referred to as immunosuppressed, is a wide-ranging label that includes anyone who has a weakened immune system. Your immunity is made up of an arsenal of cells that are strategically placed throughout the body to identify, warn of, and destroy invaders and other harmful substances. If these cells do not function properly, damaging organisms such as parasites, harmful bacteria, and viruses may start to develop within the body.
Coronavirus risk may increase because of the cancer itself, as a result of the side effects of cancer treatments and procedures, because of low white blood cell count, or as an outcome of poor nutrition.
Cancer & Coronavirus
The fact that someone has cancer, alone, may negatively impact their ability to fight infections like COVID-19. Certain types of cancer like lymphomas, some leukemias, and multiple myeloma begin within immune cells. As a result, cells that once served to protect the body are altered to work improperly. Cancerous cells may also infect the bone marrow, where blood cells are produced, and cause blood cell production to decline. If this happens, fewer white blood cells (pathogen-fighting immune cells) are deployed to neutralize infection.
Side Effects of Cancer Treatments
The reason why cancer may decrease someone’s ability to ward off or heal from the Coronavirus is not only due to the disease itself. Your skin and various mucous membranes are your body’s first line of defense. They provide a physical barrier against the dangers of the outside world. Individuals with cancer are often prescribed anti-cancer pharmaceuticals and radiation therapy among other medicaments. They are also often required to undergo procedures such as surgeries, installation of catheters, receiving shots, etc. These treatments and procedures may injure skin cells or cause damage to mucous membranes, making it easier for pathogens to enter the body. Certain anti-cancer treatments may also result in nausea, which I will touch on shortly.
White Blood Cell Count
Anti-cancer treatments like radiation, chemotherapy, steroid use, stem cell transplants, bone marrow transplants, and more can reduce the number of white blood cells like neutrophils in the body. Cancer itself is also capable of reducing your white blood cell count and certain cancer treatments can also suppress the efficiency of white blood cells. It is much easier to catch an infection like COVID-19 when you do not have enough white blood cells available. In fact, one way to determine how at-risk you are of developing an infection is for a doctor to examine the number of neutrophils that you have available.
In order for any cell to carry out its function, it must have the proper fuel. Lack of essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, protein, and general calories can weaken your immune system. Individuals with cancer often require more calories in order to adequately support their immune system and fight off infections like the Coronavirus. People diagnosed with cancer may require extra nutrients because the cancer itself may make it difficult for them to eat, treatments may result in nausea, or the cancer cells may use up vital nutrients that should be designated for other cells.
If you have been diagnosed with cancer, I recommend speaking with your doctor to see if adding dietary supplements or intravenous nutrition might be beneficial for you as you continue building your immunity against COVID-19. Beyond simply making sure you are eating enough calories, nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, there are certain immune-boosting foods that I recommend adding to your diet. White button mushrooms, broccoli (florets, stems, and sprouts), extra virgin olive oil, chestnuts, blackberries, aged garlic, Chile peppers, and pomegranate juice are just a few foods that contain powerful immune-enhancing properties.
It is important to note that not everyone who was treated for cancer in the past is a high risk for catching the Coronavirus today. If you had cancer a number of years ago, it is likely that your immune system has mostly recovered by now. With that said, if you fall into the COVID-19 high-risk category because you do currently have cancer or did recently, it is best to take some necessary precautions such as staying home when possible, regularly washing your hands, cleaning and disinfecting regularly-touched surfaces, and increasing your intake of the immune-boosting foods that I mentioned previously.
I outline many more immune-enhancing foods in my book Eat to Beat Disease, so check that out for more details.