Extracted from Breastcancer.org
Breast cancer cells start out as normal body cells, but they begin to grow out of control because of an abnormal gene. The immune system plays a major role in limiting the development of these abnormalities, often before cancer has a chance to grow. This gets rid of many cancerous cells before they can do any harm. Damaged, pre-cancerous cells may be a constant presence, but a vigilant immune system takes them out and protects us from many assaults of cancer that never get beyond the very earliest stage.
When the immune system fails
Occasionally, though, even though cells are changing from normal to abnormal, they may still appear to be normal. Their outer appearance may look normal, even though profound changes may be happening on the inside. In this way, these abnormal cells manage to escape attack by the immune system and grow and multiply without triggering an immune response. This is how it’s possible for a tumor to form, even when your immune system is working normally. Eventually, however, the tumor becomes so altered and threatening that it can no longer hide its malignant character. The immune system is no longer fooled into recognizing these cells as normal, and launches its attack.
The attack may succeed, or it may come too late: the tumor may be beyond the power of the immune system by itself. The immune system may need help—bold measures such as:
- immune growth factors—medicines that stimulate the production of new immune cells;
- antibody medications—special antibodies made in a laboratory, designed to target a specific antigen on a cancer cell;
- vaccines—agents that stimulate your immune system to fight back, giving it a wake-up call to action; and
- non-immune-system intervention, such as:
You may worry, “What happens if I lose lymph nodes to surgery, or my white count drops dramatically because of chemotherapy? Is my immune system weakened, and will I become vulnerable again to cancer and infection?”
Fortunately, your immune system is very resilient and flexible. Various parts can switch roles and fill in for each other. You also have a considerable reserve or surplus of immune cells and tissues. If some lymph nodes are removed, others take up the load, handling the circulation of lymph fluids and filtering out cancer cells, bacteria, and other unwanted elements. Because you have so many more white blood cells than your body requires, most of the time a reduced number of white blood cells won’t put you in any serious danger. New lymphocytes and macrophagescan be mobilized in a matter of minutes. However, it is important to be aware of your blood counts.
Blood counts are used to determine any possible damage chemotherapy or radiation has caused to your immune system. It takes just a few drops of blood to identify the number of all types of blood cells in your system. How much your white blood cell count declines depends on you as an individual, your general health, your treatment, the dose and interval between treatment cycles, and the total dose you’ve received over time.
Chemotherapy and blood counts
Chemotherapy drugs can lower blood counts significantly because they reach all sites of blood cell production. Immune cells in particular are very sensitive to the effects of chemotherapy. Really low blood count levels are usually temporary, but may last longer if you have received regular doses of chemotherapy over an extended period of time, or after the very high doses of chemotherapy that precede bone marrow transplantation.
When your blood counts are very low, your thymus, spleen, bone marrow, and lymph nodes respond by calling on their reserves and revving up the production of more white cells. While your immune cell counts are at their lowest, you run an increased risk of developing an infection. As tempting as it is to skimp on the dose to avoid some of the side effects, it’s better to get the doses you need get the full cancer-fighting benefits of chemotherapy. What you CAN do is to step up the medications and nutritional measures that will support you and ease your way through.