Food safety is important during and after cancer treatments. The immune system is often weakened by cancer treatments, making the body more susceptible to foodborne illnesses.
Neutropenia is a condition where you have lower-than-normal levels of neutrophils (a type of white cell). If you have neutropenia, your doctor may suggest for you to follow special guidelines, which can help protect you from bacteria and other harmful organisms found in some food and drinks.
If you had a stem cell transplant, your diet may be stricter than that of a patient who had chemotherapy or radiation therapy and no transplant.
Diet guidelines published by institutions or doctors about handling food safely may also recommend avoiding foods that are more often associated with illness.
Basic Guidelines to Follow
- Avoid raw or rare meat and fish and uncooked or undercooked eggs. Cook meat until it's well-done.
- Thoroughly cook eggs (no runny yolks) and avoid foods containing raw eggs such as raw cookie dough or homemade mayonnaise.
- Avoid unpasteurized beverages, such as fruit juice, milk and raw milk yogurt.
- Avoid salad bars and buffets.
- Refrigerate pate, cold hot dog or deli meat (including dry-cured salami and deli prepared salads containing these items), eggs or seafood.
- Consume only pasteurized milk, yogurt, cheese and other dairy products.
- Avoid soft mold-ripened and blue-veined cheeses such as Brie, Camembert, Roquefort, Stilton, Gorgonzola and Bleu or other soft, unpasteurized cheeses.
- Avoid raw sprouts, such as alfalfa sprouts.
- Wash fresh fruits and vegetables before peeling.
- Avoid well water unless it has been tested, filtered, or boiled for one minute before drinking. At home, it's okay to drink tap water or bottled water.
Your healthcare team may refer to these guidelines as a “neutropenic diet” or you may have encountered the term on your own. This diet was supposed to help individuals with neutropenia learn how to decrease exposure to bacteria and other harmful organisms found in some foods. However, a universally-accepted definition of what foods should be included was never developed.
In a review of studies, the neutropenic diet was never proven to decrease exposure to bacteria in foods. This diet does not seem to benefit patients in any way. Safe preparation and handling of foods is more important than restricting intake of specific food groups, as balanced diet and nutrition is important for coping with chemotherapy and other treatments.
Food guidelines for immunosuppressed patients vary among cancer centers. Ask your doctor for any special instructions.
- Download or order The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s free fact sheet, Food and Nutrition Facts.