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10 Strategies for Staying Healthy While Fighting Cancer

By DR. LISA C. RICHARDSON

Coming home. These two simple words can conjure up good thoughts. After all, home is where we go to unwind after a long day at work, where we're free to do what we want, and the first place we want to go after a hospital stay -- or for many cancer patients, a grueling round of chemotherapy.

But once a cancer patient returns home, how can they keep themselves as healthy as possible? As an oncologist, one of my main concerns for my patients is the threat of infection. Getting an infection can delay future treatments, put them in the hospital or, even worse, cause death.

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Here is my top-10 list of things every cancer patient and caregiver should know about staying healthy at home:

1. Take action if you get a fever. If you're only going to remember one thing from this article, this is the most important one. 

Take your temperature any time you don't feel "right." Many times, fever may be our body's only sign of an infection. If you have a temperature of 100.4ºF or higher for more than one hour, call your doctor immediately.

2. Know the signs and symptoms of infection. If you exhibit any of these signs or symptoms call your doctor right away:

* Chills and sweats
* Change in cough or new cough
* Sore throat or new mouth sore
* Shortness of breath
* Nasal congestion
* Stiff neck
* Burning or pain with urination
* Unusual vaginal discharge or irritation
* Increased urination
* Redness, soreness or swelling in any area, including surgical wounds and ports
* Diarrhea
* Vomiting
* Pain in the abdomen or rectum
* New onset of pain
* Changes in skin, urination and mental status

[Read More: How to Prevent Infections]

3. Wash your hands with soap and water. It's that simple. One of the best ways to keep yourself from getting sick is to keep your hands clean. Don't be afraid to ask your family, friends, visitors, doctors and nurses to wash their hands too. If soap and water are not available, it's OK to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

 4. Get the flu shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people with cancer get the seasonal flu shot as soon as it is available. Talk to your doctor or nurse about this. Be sure to ask for the seasonal flu shot, not the nasal-spray vaccine.

5. Take your medicine. Whether you receive treatment or medicine in a hospital, clinic or at home, follow these tips to ensure that your treatment is carried out as intended:

* Take your medication exactly as your doctor tells you or prescribes.
* Do not skip a dose.
* Do not run out of your medicine.
* Never take medicine that is prescribed for someone else, even if it is the same type and dose as yours.
* Do not use leftover or outdated medicine.
* Report any side effects right away.
* Talk to your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medicine.

6. Monitor your catheter or port. To lower the chance of developing an infection, you should follow these tips:

* Follow your nurse or doctor's instructions.
* Keep the device clean and dry, and wash your hands before touching or caring for your device.
* Contact your doctor or nurse immediately if you notice any of the following near your device:
*Redness, swelling, soreness or any drainage (including pus).

 7. Enjoy your pet -- carefully. For many of us, our pets are a part of the family. The main concern about pets is that germs they are carrying can enter your body through scratches or via contact with your mouth (either directly or indirectly from your hands) and cause an infection.

The good news is that you can still care for your pet as long as you take a few precautions:

* Avoid direct contact with pet waste by wearing vinyl or household cleaning gloves when cleaning up. Wash your hands afterward.
* Keep your cat's litter box away from eating areas. If possible, have someone else change the litter pan. If changing the litter, wear vinyl or household cleaning gloves and wash your hands afterward.
* Wash your hands with soap and water after playing with or caring for pets, especially before eating or handling food.
* If you get scratched or bitten, immediately wash the wounds well with soap and water.
* Keep your pet from licking your mouth or any open cuts or wounds you may have.
* Keep your pet clean and make sure they get regular checkups and vaccinations

8. Avoid certain foods. There are particular foods that you should avoid during your illness, such as undercooked or raw meat or eggs.

Check the labels on dairy products like milk, cheese and fruit juices to ensure they are pasteurized. Raw and unpasteurized products contain bacteria that can make you ill. You should also avoid any unwashed fruits or vegetables.

9. Protect your skin when gardening. Your skin is your first defense against infection, and any breaks in the skin create an opportunity for germs to enter your body.

Wear gardening gloves to avoid cuts and scrapes, and be careful around plants with sharp thorns. Gloves also protect your hands from direct contact with soil, which can contain bacteria and mold. After gardening, be sure to wash your hands with soap and water.

10. Keep your house clean. But it's not necessary to go overboard cleaning your home. If you don't feel well, don't overdo it by excessively cleaning your house.

One simple way to keep germs at bay is to use a disinfectant (a spray or wipes) on areas that you come in contact with frequently: kitchen countertops and floors (especially before and after food preparation), refrigerator door handles, phones, doorknobs and bathroom counters and floors.

Whether you're battling cancer yourself or caring for someone who is, I encourage you to visit PreventCancerInfections.org. This website offers a variety of resources and information to help you stay healthy during your cancer treatment.

--Dr. Richardson

Readers -- Are you currently fighting cancer or caring for someone who is? Do you follow any of the tips mentioned above? Was this post helpful to you? Do you have any other ideas or tips? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Lisa C. Richardson, M.D., M.P.H., is a medical officer and the Director of the Division of Blood Disorders (DBD) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. She is also a lead investigator of the CDC's Preventing Infections in Cancer Patients program. Dr. Richardson most recently served as the Associate Director of Science in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control in the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. 

She oversaw the research and scientific content of the Division's programs and products, including the only organized screening program for low-income uninsured women in the United States, the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP).

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