What Does it Mean to Be Immunocompromised?


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Immunocompromised is a word we hear often, especially around flu season. And even more so in the age of coronavirus (COVID-19). What does it mean exactly, and how is it related to colorectal cancer patients and survivors?

In simple terms, an immunocompromised person has a weaker immune system - making them more vulnerable to getting fungal, viral, bacterial, and parasitic infections. Once an infection is contracted, an immunocompromised person’s weakened immune system has a reduced ability to fight it than a non-immunocompromised person’s immune system. Another term used for immunocompromised is immunosuppressed

Being immunosuppressed is more of a symptom than a syndrome, and there are many factors that could result in immunosuppression such as AIDS, pregnancy, diabetes, malnutrition, certain genetic disorders, and cancer. Additionally, it could be caused by medications or treatments someone is taking; for instance, radiation therapy, anticancer medication, surgeries like organ transplants, and more.

The good news? There are some ways to support your immunity. These include a good night’s sleep (studies show lack of sleep associated with a weakened immunity), healthy eating (lots of fruits and vegetables), and exercise (exercise outside or at home to avoid crowded gyms).

If You’re Currently on Treatment

Cancer patients currently on therapy are thought to be a high-risk group, meaning they have a more difficult time fighting off infections and viruses. 

Chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery put a lot of stress on the body, thus increasing the potential risk of infection. Additionally, if the cancer is affecting the function of an organ, there could be an even higher risk for complications. For example, if a patient has metastasis to their lungs, and an infection occurs, there could be complications to the respiratory system due to the presence of lung disease. Blood cancers, in and of themselves compromise the immune system as the blood system is part of the immune system. Therefore, both the treatment and the cancer affect the body’s defense system. For patients on immunotherapy, there is currently not enough known about this treatment option and how it affects fighting off infections and viruses.

If You’re Currently Not on Treatment

People who are no longer on cancer treatment might not be at a much higher risk of complications due to infection and viruses, depending on how long ago cancer treatment ended. If you are off treatment, talk to your doctor about your immunity.

Scott Wilson
Scott Wilson, stage IV colon cancer survivor and Fight CRC Mission Champion Vice President

“We’re being so careful as a family and our kids have already drummed hand washing and reduced contact into their normal behaviors, but there are still times we find ourselves having to stop and think twice before acting on instincts; something as simple as meeting friends for a bike ride. This experience has brought immunocompromised from the abstract into realizing that’s Dad.”

How Do I Stay Safe During the Flu Season and Coronavirus (COVID-19)?

When flu season rolls around, it’s advised to get the flu shot. While there is a nasal mist option, the shot may be preferable as the mist is a live-attenuated vaccine and could cause an immunocompromised patient to actually get sick with the flu. Additionally, if you know that you’ve been in close contact with someone who has the flu, let your doctors know as soon as possible. They might consider giving medication as a preventive measure. 

To avoid being infected with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), it is imperative to follow the guidelines put forth by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). These include social distancing and isolation measures, and simple, yet vigilant, hygiene listed below.

  1. Washing hands regularly for at least 20 seconds (that’s longer than you think!)
  2. Cough/sneeze into your elbow or tissue (and throw the tissue away immediately)
  3. Stay away from large crowds (people there may be sick and could potentially infect you)
  4. Don’t touch your face (keep those germs from entering your nose, mouth, and eyes)

I’m a Caregiver - What Role Do I Play?

As a caregiver, it’s important that you also practice the recommendations put forth by the CDC and WHO. If you begin to feel sick, do your best to maintain distance from others in the house. This could mean sleeping in a different room, eating at a different table (or different time), etc. While using a mask is not currently recommended for people to prevent the spread of illness, the World Health Organization gives the following guidelines:

  1. If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected 2019-nCoV infection.
  2. Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  3. Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
  4. If you wear a mask, then you must know how to use it and dispose of it properly.

Additionally, it’s important to have a plan to ensure your household knows the steps to take in case someone gets sick. 

Talk to Your Doctor

As a cancer patient, survivor, and loved one/caregiver, it’s important to talk to your doctor about how to minimize your risk of the flu and COVID-19. Don’t hesitate to ask any questions on how to increase your immunity, to whether or not your treatments should be postponed and how you might manage the added stress associated with the flu season and COVID-19.

We are Here for You

Fight CRC is here for you. Check out the following resources to support you during flu season and the COVID-19 crisis.

One thought on “What Does it Mean to Be Immunocompromised?

  1. Early last year I was diagnosed with rectal cancer. After a course of radiotherapy and chemotherapy tablets during which time I felt well with no side effects. In September last year I had two operations to remove the cancer and put in place a stoma. By Christmas 2019 I was fully recovered and given the all clear. My local GP put me on the extremely vulnerable list for covid19 but l do not think think this is necessary. Has my immune system returned to normal ? Can I be treated like others fit and in their 70,s? I feel I do not feel in need of any special treatment.

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