Chemotherapy & white blood cell count

Anyone who has ever gone through chemotherapy for treating cancer knows how important white blood cell counts (WBCs) are.   It’s not uncommon for a person to develop leukopenia or low white blood cell counts at certain times of chemotherapy.  The reason for this is chemotherapy works by killing the fastest-growing cells in the body including WBCs.  White blood cells are needed to fight infections and if the count is low, your immune system is weakened increasing the risk of infection and can delay receiving cancer treatments until the count increases.  Usually the blood counts do return to normal before the next round of chemotherapy and when the cancer treatment is completed. 

Understanding white blood cells

The normal range for white blood cells is 4,500-10,000 WBC per microliter (mcL).  Our WBC count makes up for only about 1% of our blood, but what a significant quantity that is in terms of keeping us healthy.  These tireless cells work round the clock to help fight off infections, viruses, bacteria or any other foreign invader that want to cause us harm.  WBCs are an important component of our blood system and they are made up of different types of WBCs including monocytes, lymphocytes, neutrophils, basophils, and eosinophils.

When our body is in distress with a certain area being under attack, WBCs rush in to help destroy the harmful substance and prevent illness. Our bone marrow produces WBCs which are then stored in the blood and lymphatic tissues.  The lifespan of a WBC is about one to three days so the bone marrow is constantly kept busy making them.

A person who has radiation to the bones can experience chronic suppression of blood cell production resulting in low counts.  Other cancer patients receiving treatment to another area of the body will recover their WBCs more quickly but the amount of time it takes for WBCs to return to normal will vary from person to person.

Being able to maintain an adequate WBC count is crucial during cancer treatments

How to help maintain white blood cell counts

Even though there is no diet or specific foods a person can eat to increase production of WBCs, having leukopenia means there are steps to take keeping yourself as healthy as possible while the counts are low.  The neutrophils are the WBCs that fight off bacterial infection – when neutropenia (low levels of neutrophils) develops this makes a person more susceptible to infections.  Here are ways to protect yourself if this happens:

·         Practice good hygiene of hand-washing and food safety

·         Use an anti-bacterial soap with warm water, scrubbing your hands for 15-30 seconds several times daily and always before you prepare and eat food.  Wash hands after shaking hands with anyone and avoid touching your face, particularly your nose, eyes and mouth.

·         Avoid raw meat, eggs and fish, moldy or expired food, unwashed or moldy fruit and vegetables, and unpasteurized beverages including milk, fruit and vegetable juice, beer, as well as unpasteurized honey.

·         Wash all fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating.

·         Consume good quality protein sources to help the body use the building blocks (amino acids) from protein to make new WBCs. 

·         Get adequate rest and sleep at night to help your body recover and recuperate from cancer treatments. 

·         Keep physically active if possible to help keep the immune system strong