How White Blood Cells Protect You
Watch this video of how white blood cells protect against infection by attacking germs that enter your body.
Chemotherapy and White Blood Cells
Chemotherapy is a commonly used treatment for cancer. These powerful cancer-fighting drugs work by killing the fastest-growing cells in the body—both good and bad. This means that along with killing cancer cells, your healthy white blood cells, called neutrophils, are killed too.
When the number of neutrophils is reduced, a condition called neutropenia occurs and your risk for getting an infection is increased. Between 7 and 12 days after you have received each chemotherapy treatment—and possibly lasting up to one week, your white blood cells are at their lowest numbers. This period of time is often called your nadir, meaning “lowest point”. This is when you are more likely to develop neutropenia. This period varies slightly depending upon the chemotherapy drug, or combination of drugs, used. Your doctor and/or nurse will let you know exactly when your white blood cell count is likely to be at its lowest.
You should watch very carefully for signs and symptoms of infection during this time. During these high-risk days, you should take your temperature any time you feel warm, flushed, chilled, or not well.
Learn more about nadir
How Chemotherapy Effects Your White Blood Cells
Watch this video that shows what happens when the number of white blood cells is reduced (a condition called neutropenia).
If You Have a Low White Blood Cell Count (High Risk)
If chemotherapy is likely to make your white blood cell count very low, you may get medicine to raise your white blood cell count and help lower your risk of infection.
If you have a low white blood cell count, remember that you have a great resource in your doctor or nurse! Be sure to talk to them about ways that you can better cope with low white blood cell counts. They can give you resources and guidance to keep your body as healthy as possible during this time. If you have questions, call your doctor or nurse. They are there to help you.
Remember that when your white blood cell count is low, your body isn’t as well equipped to fight off germs. For this reason, it is very important to reduce your risk of infection and familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of infection.
Helpful Web Sites and References
Amgen. (2010). About Low White Blood Cell Counts. Retrieved May 3, 2011, from http://www.neulasta.com/patient/about/about_whitecell.html
American Cancer Society. (2009). Infections in people with cancer. Retrieved March 1, 2011, from http://www.cancer.org/docroot/ETO/content/ETO_1_2X_Infections_in_People_...
Antoniadou, A., & Giamarellou, H. (2007). Fever of unknown origin in febrile leukopenia. Infectious Disease Clinics of North America, 21, 1055–1090.
Crighton, M. H. (2004). Dimensions of neutropenia in adult cancer patients. Cancer Nursing, 27(4), 275–284.
National Cancer Institute. (2008). Managing chemotherapy side effects. Retrieved May 3, 2011, from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/chemo-side-effects/infection.pdf
Patient information sheet: Granulocyte Stimulating Factor. Available at http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/295/9/1088.full.pdf