Neutropenia is when a person has little to no neutrophils, a type of white blood cell. This means that your body’s immune system is not strong enough to fight infections, bacteria, or other foreign antibodies. When one is neutropenic, it can lead to serious infections because the body has no way to fight it.
Neutropenia can occur during or after cancer treatment – especially with multiple myeloma. During stem cell transplant or intensive chemotherapy, expect a period of days or longer to be neutropenic before the body recovers. Neutropenia is diagnosed by a simple blood test. Your myeloma doctor will carefully monitor your counts during this time to ensure that you fully understand dietary restrictions and are kept away from places where you are at increase for exposure to germs. Oftentimes, patients are kept in the hospital during neutropenia or, at a minimum, are near a hospital should you spike a fever.
The best way to live with neutropenia is to prevent infections. This can be done in several ways, including washing hands frequently, showering daily, keeping a clean home, changing clothes daily, and staying away from sick people. Tips for this part can be found here (15 Tips For Getting Your Patient Through Neutropenia).
It is vitally important to note that when a patient is neutropenic, eating fresh fruits and veggies, or anything uncooked or unprocessed is a big “no no." The good news is that these severe restrictions only last several days. The reason for the food restrictions is that your body has no means of fighting any contaminants that might be lurking in your food.
While one may need to eat more frozen pizzas and canned soups than usual, it is possible to eat healthier options. Of course, discuss with your doctor first but usually it is sufficient to cook all fresh foods thoroughly before consuming. For example, wash fresh veggies and broil or bake them thoroughly. When in doubt, overcook and over-boil them! Fresh fruit can also be baked, cooked or broiled and added to oatmeal or pancakes. Soups are a great way of eating lots of fresh veggies- just make sure you cook your soup to almost scalding temps! Absolutely no salad bars or buffets. Meats are allowed but, again, they must be thoroughly cooked (no rare or medium rare steaks). Basically, you must know how your food is prepared to ensure it is safe to eat. That means restaurants are out of the picture (for now). Canned and frozen foods are generally safe, as are other items like breads and cereals and other pre-packaged foods.
In addition, buffets and most restaurants are best to be avoided. At buffets, other people touch your food, leading to the spread of diseases and infections. At restaurants, the building is crowded and other people, who do not have your health risks in mind, are preparing foods below your level of care and cleanliness.
If you have been diagnosed with neutropenia, you need to know the signs of an infection early, in order to prevent it from becoming serious or life-threatening. Cancer.net explains some symptoms.
- A fever (temperature of 100.5°F or higher)
- Chills or sweating
- Sore throat, sores in the mouth, or a toothache
- Abdominal pain
- Pain in the perirectal (anal) area
- Pain or burning when urinating, or frequent urination
- Diarrhea or sores around the anus
- A cough or shortness of breath
- Any redness, swelling, or pain, particularly around a cut, wound, or the site of intravenous catheter insertion
- Unusual vaginal discharge or itching
If you experience any of these symptoms, contact your doctor immediately.
As always discuss with your doctor prior to eating any foods or other lifestyle restrictions during treatment.
about the author
Myeloma survivor, patient advocate, wife, mom of 6. Believer that patients can help accelerate a cure by weighing in and participating in clinical research. Founder of HealthTree Foundation (formerly Myeloma Crowd).