Leukemia is a cancer that usually begins in the white blood cells, causing the cells to multiply rapidly and function abnormally. The white blood cells are cells that fight infections in the body. As it progresses, the leukemia can affect the lymphatic system, the bone marrow and the myelogenous system. Because of these factors, leukemia patients are often encouraged to eat a special diet.
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A leukemia patient needs to eat a diet that minimizes the risk of infection, provides strength to fight the leukemia and enables the body to work optimally to heal. Because leukemia is a blood cancer that starts in the white blood cells and leads to lowered immune system function, how food is prepared for leukemia patients is just as important as what foods they eat.
As leukemia patients go through treatment, their absolute neutrophil count, or ANC, begins to drop. The ANC is directly related to the ability to fight infection. A patient with an ANC of less than 500 cells/mm3 is said to be neutropenic, which means the patient's immune system isn't strong enough to fight off infections, notes University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. When patients are neutropenic, they must be extremely careful about what they eat because of food-borne illness and germs on food.
From the day of diagnosis, a leukemia patient is encouraged to begin eating a healthy diet. During the period when patients are not considered neutropenic, they can eat a basic healthy diet built on the food pyramid; however, additional protein and whole grains are usually recommended. Leukemia patients can follow this basic diet until they are classified as neutropenic. From the time the patient is diagnosed as neutropenic until the ANC is back up to acceptable levels, the patient must follow a neutropenic diet.
A regular diet for a leukemia patient involves eating lean protein, fresh vegetables, milk products, fresh fruits, whole grains and some fats. A neutropenic diet involves eating thoroughly cooked vegetables and fruits, well-done lean protein, only pasteurized dairy products and contaminate-free whole grains.
Before preparing foods for a leukemia patient, you must thoroughly clean all food surfaces to avoid the risk of food contamination. Raw meats and uncooked vegetables and fruits must be kept away from prepared foods. Regardless of the patient's ANC, all fruits and vegetables must be thoroughly washed before being eaten or prepared. All leftover foods must be promptly refrigerated and then thoroughly heated before eating and should be consumed within 24 hours of initially cooking the foods. Failure to follow these basic food safety guidelines can introduce infection and cause treatment complications for the patient.