During chemotherapy education, I tell new patients to treat themselves like a newborn. After each cycle of chemotherapy, the immune system, like that of a new infant, is beginning anew. Certain rules should be followed during the first months of caring for a newborn. Sick people stay away, crowds are avoided, and hand washing is a must. These guidelines can easily be applied to patients in cancer treatment, especially with cytotoxic drugs that kill cancer cells and other fast dividing cells like white blood cells.

Bad bacteria and viruses are normally kept in check by healthy bacteria and white blood cells. Without these defenses, every hour that patients wait to report an increase in temperature or other signs of infection is a life threat. An example I use to stress the importance of temperature monitoring is to compare taking acetaminophen and waiting to call the physician to starting a fire in the kitchen and turning off the smoke alarm—danger is inevitable. 

An estimated 60,000 patients are hospitalized each year for infections related to chemotherapy, and one patient dies every two hours as a result of infection. This sombering fact was reported by Michelle Gaguski, AOCN®, CHPN, APN-C, in a blog post on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. Gaguski also gives some tips that, along with hand washing, can help protect patients from the complications of infection.

Another helpful tool is the CDC's interactive 3 Steps Toward Preventing Infections During Cancer Treatment program. The three steps include

  • Prepare
  • Prevent
  • Protect

Patients, caregivers, and healthcare providers can use the 3 Steps evidence-based risk assessment tool to determine infection risks. Some of the questions on the questionnaire include age, type of cancer, and previous health history. Oncology nurses can feel confident using the educational handouts and directly referring patients and caregivers to the website.

My favorite handout on the site is the Discover the 3 Steps quick reference sheet. Download your copy today and improve your strategy for teaching chemotherapy patients about the importance of infection prevention.