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Food Safety During Cancer Treatment

Family and friends often want to lend a hand to someone going through cancer treatment. It’s a thoughtful gesture to drop off a dish so they don’t have to worry about cooking. People undergoing treatment for cancer often need to eat modified diets, both to stay safe and because some foods don’t agree with them.

Here are a few things to know before you head into the kitchen…


Something that sounds good to eat

Begin by asking a few questions. This can save you from taking the time to prepare a meal that they won’t be able to eat.

  • What types of things to eat are sounding good these days? How big is your appetite?
  • Are your favorite foods still your favorites?
  • Are you avoiding certain foods?
  • Are you having any side effects from treatment such as taste changes, a queasy stomach, or changes in your normal bowel habits that you would like to share?
  • Do you have any special dietary concerns? Are you following a special diet?
  • Would you like things to nibble on like snacks? Or would you rather have full meals to reheat?
  • Are there any types of fluids or beverages that you might like to sip on?


Keeping it safe

Whether recovering from cancer surgery, undergoing daily radiation therapy, or receiving regular cycles of chemotherapy, or a combination of these therapies—cancer treatment can have an effect on a person’s immune system. For people with cancer, avoiding infection and illness can be vitally important to their health. Some cancer treatments can cause a reduction in the number of blood cells in the bone marrow. When the white blood cells (neutrophils) are reduced this condition is called neutropenia and it can put a person at increased risk for infection. When a person’s immune system is weakened care should be taken to avoid bacteria and other food-borne organisms, and unsafe food practices that could make them ill from what they eat.

Knowing about food safety is actually important when handling and preparing food for everyone—not just those undergoing cancer treatment.

The Food and Drug Administration outline the Four Basic Steps to Food Safety:

Clean – Separate – Cook – Chill

  1. Clean: wash hand and surfaces often
  2. Separate: separate raw meats from other foods
  3. Cook: cook to the right temperature
  4. Chill: refrigerate food promptly


The following “safe food practices” are helpful tips for all people:

  • It’s all in your hands – Believe it or not, the most important food safety practice is hand washing! Whether using hand sanitizer or plenty of soap and water, try to “wash” your hands for at least 20 seconds. Wash your hands before each step of the food preparation process.
  • Keep it clean – Be sure to keep all kitchen surfaces clean. Use separate cutting boards for cooked and raw foods. Wash cutting boards in hot, soapy water after each use. Replace dish clothes and dish towels daily. Replace sponges every week.
  • Make your own sanitizing solution – Mix two teaspoons of chlorine bleach in one quart of water. After wiping surfaces with the solution, rinse with clean water and allow to air dry.
  • Know the right temperatures – When bringing meals over, be sure to prepare them and then immediately refrigerate or freeze them so your special someone can reheat them when they are ready to eat them and be sure to label and date home-prepared perishable foods.


Safe Temperatures

Provide instructions to reheat meals and foods to a minimum temperature of 165ºF and bring soups, sauces, and gravies to a boil when reheating.

  • Set the refrigerator between 34ºF and 40ºF.
  • Keep the freezer set below 0 – 2ºF or below.
  • Cook meat to an internal temperature of 160ºF.
  • Cook poultry (whole bird) to an internal temperature of 180ºF.
  • Cook chicken breast meat to an internal temperature of 170ºF.
  • Cook casseroles to a minimum temperature of 165ºF.
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