Neutropenia: The Cancer Treatment Side Effect You Don’t Know You Have

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When you have breast cancer and are being treated with chemotherapy or radiation, you very likely have a lot of new symptoms to worry about. Everything from dry skin to diarrhea, constipation to nausea, hair loss to shortness of breath. So if a symptom can’t be seen from the outside or felt from the inside, it’s probably going to be forgotten.

Neutropenia is one of those invisible consequences of certain cancer treatments, but it’s an important one to know about. It occurs in up to one-third of patients who have undergone chemotherapy or radiation, and it refers to low levels of a type of white blood cells known as neutrophils in the body. These neutrophils are responsible for attacking bacteria and foreign invaders, so if chemo or radiation is slowing the production of neutrophils or killing some of them off, the results can be dangerous.

By itself, neutropenia doesn’t cause any outwardly recognizable symptoms, but it does increase the risk of infection and sepsis, especially in the mucus membranes. A high fever (101.5F or higher) during chemo or radiation may alert the patient to this issue, hopefully before problems like ear infections, mouth ulcers, and periodontal disease occur.

Luckily, a simple blood test can be used to diagnose neutropenia by calculating your absolute neutrophil count (which should be between 2,500 and 6,000), so you don’t have to wait until you have an infection to know neutropenia is a problem.

Once you know you have it, it can be treated in several ways. Your doctor may change your medications, recommend a granulocyte transfusion, add a granulocyte colony-stimulating factor to your cancer treatment plan to stimulate neutrophil production, or give you some other remedy. It may even be something as simple as practicing good hygiene and dental care to prevent infection.

Neutropenia may never cause you any problems, but if simple solutions can be employed to ensure you don’t develop a nasty infection or sepsis, they’re probably worth the extra effort for the peace of mind.

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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?