Eating Well When Your Immune System Is Suppressed From Cancer

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When your body's immune system is weakened, its ability to fight infection is also weakened. Immunosuppression may be intentionally induced with drugs in preparation for bone-marrow or organ transplantation, in an effort to prevent rejection of donor tissue. It may also result from conditions such as leukemia, lymphoma, or from anticancer drugs. Follow these tips for eating well to ensure that you are keeping your body in optimal health for recovery when your body’s immune system is weakened.


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Make sure your food is cooked thoroughly

Raw meat and poultry should always be cooked to a safe temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit to decrease the risk of foodborne illness. Avoid rare meats; when eating out, request that your food be cooked until it’s well done. Invest in a meat thermometer and check the temperature of cooked meats before serving. Serve and eat cooked meats immediately to avoid the temperature of the food falling into the “danger zone” (40-140 degrees), when bacteria can grow rapidly and cause illness.


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Wash fruit and vegetables properly

To avoid illness caused by contaminated produce, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends these steps:

  1. Wash hands before and after preparing produce.
  2. Cut away the damaged/bruised areas.
  3. Rinse produce before you peel it, so bacteria isn’t transferred from the knife onto the produce.
  4. Gently rub produce while holding under running water.
  5. Use a clean vegetable brush to scrub firm produce (such as melons).
  6. Dry produce with a paper towel to reduce bacteria that may be present.
  7. Remove the outer leaves of lettuce.


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Safely thaw frozen food

Thaw meat and seafood in the refrigerator and cook food to proper temperature immediately after thawing. Don’t leave frozen food on the kitchen counter to thaw. Food left out at room temperature (between 40 and 140°) for as little as 20 minutes increases the risk of dangerous bacteria growth in food. Living with a condition such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) increases your risk for foodborne illness and infection, so it’s critical to handle food properly to reduce your risk of illness.


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Use caution when eating out

Avoid questionable foods that are served on a buffet or salad bar — you can’t be sure of how long these foods have been sitting out and whether or not they have been stored and kept above or below room temperature for optimal food safety. Stick with foods that are made to order so that you can specify how you would like your meal prepared and cooked.


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Only drink water that you know is safe

Stick with bottled or tap water — avoid well water unless you know it’s been tested for harmful bacteria or filtered. If you are traveling and unsure of water safety, you can boil well water for at least one minute to kill any harmful bacteria before drinking it.


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Avoid unpasteurized foods

“Raw” dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese have not been pasteurized to eliminate harmful bacteria, so it’s best to avoid these foods. Raw fruit ciders (such as apple cider) and honey that are labeled as “unpasteurized” or “raw” should also be eliminated from your diet. Consume only pasteurized foods to reduce your risk of illness.


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Limit soft cheeses

Soft cheeses such as brie, feta, and Camembert and cheeses containing molds such as blue, Roquefort, and Gorgonzola should be avoided to reduce your risk of consuming harmful bacteria. This includes fresh salad dressings and dips made with any of these cheeses. Pasteurized cheeses and products made with non-dairy creamer are safe to consume.


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Avoid raw foods

Raw or undercooked eggs, meats (such as rare beef), and seafood (including sushi and smoked salmon) should be avoided to decrease your risk of foodborne illness. Raw sprouts (such as alfalfa and bean sprouts) should also be avoided to minimize your risk. Cooked sprouts are safe to consume. The CLL Support Association also recommends avoiding all patés and consuming food on or before their “use by/best before” dates.


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Choose desserts wisely

Avoid unrefrigerated sweets like cream-filled pastries, cookies, cakes, and pies to decrease your risk of exposure to harmful bacteria. Homemade desserts, refrigerated pies and cakes, shelf-stable cookies, and other sweets are safe to consume.