Cancer patients are susceptible to neutropenia, a common side effect of chemotherapy that can put a patient at increased risk for infection. Neutropenia is when neutrophils, a major type of white blood cell responsible for fighting off infection, are abnormally low. When these levels are abnormally low, patients can be more susceptible to infectious pathogens, including food-borne bacteria. Therefore, it is important for cancer patients to handle food safely during treatment.
Research indicates that the role of diet in the development of infection in patients with neutropenia is unclear, which contributes to the variation in dietary restrictions among institutions that range from more general food safety guidelines to the more strict Neutropenic Diet.
Food Safety Guidelines
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed food safety guidelines for people with cancer, which are also recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Key components of these guidelines include the following: [i]
- Washing hands in warm soapy water before handling, preparing, and eating food
- Consuming only pasteurized juices and dairy products
- Consuming food that has not passed the expiration date
- Washing raw produce well prior to consumption
- Storing raw meat, fish, and chicken carefully in wrapped containers to avoid spillage of juice that con potentially contaminate other food
- Avoiding raw or undercooked meat, poultry, fish or shellfish
The Neutropenic Diet
Some institutions follow a more restrictive protocol called the Neutropenic Diet. This more restrictive diet excludes most fresh fruits and vegetables as well as eating outside of the home. To date, no evidence-based studies support added benefit from the use of the Neutropenic Diet when compared to general food safety guidelines. Although there are no official published guidelines of its use, its use is not unsafe and remains part of many high quality medical institutions’ dietary protocols at this time [ii][iii].
It is important to remember that cancer and cancer treatment can result in a weakened immune system and that every precaution should be taken to minimize exposure to potentially harmful germs and pathogens. Practicing safe food handling throughout treatment is the first step in helping to reduce risk of infection.