Sepsis and Cancer

Cancer is a term that describes several malignant (dangerous, harmful) diseases that can affect just about every organ and system in the body. Malignant cells, or cancer cells, are abnormal cells that continue to multiply in an uncontrolled fashion. Unlike normal cells, which can stop multiplying and die off – as they should, cancer cells continue to multiply and can form tumors and growths. These can invade or spread to other areas of the body.

It is also possible for cancer cells to break free from a tumor site and enter into the bloodstream. Once they are in the bloodstream, they can travel to other parts of the body, spreading the disease to other organs. This process is calledmetastasis.

Although cancer is becoming increasingly survivable in the developing world, it is still one of the leading causes of death in countries like the United States. In 2005 in the U.S., approximately 1.4 million new cases of cancer were diagnosed and about 55,000 people died from cancer and its complications (National Cancer Institute, Cancer: Questions and Answers).

Death from cancer can occur as the result of the actual tumors, such as a tumor destroying the liver, or death can occur because of associated conditions, like sepsis.

Sometimes called blood poisoning, sepsis is the body’s often deadly response to infection or injury. Sepsis kills and disables millions and requires early suspicion and rapid treatment for survival.

Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who do survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, and organ dysfunction (don’t work properly) and/or amputations.

People with cancer are particularly susceptible to developing sepsis. An American study published in 2004 found that patients with cancer were much more likely to be hospitalized with severe sepsis (the stage just before septic shock) than the general population. The study also found that severe sepsis caused 8.5 percent of cancer-related deaths and cost over three billion dollars a year to fight. (Critical Care)

Why Are People with Cancer at High Risk?

There are several reasons why people with cancer may be at higher risk of developing sepsis than people who don’t have cancer. These include:

  • Frequent hospital stays, which increases the risk of contracting a hospital-acquired infection
  • Surgeries, procedures that puncture the skin, insertion of urinary catheters, etc. Each time something in introduced into the body, the risk of infection goes up.
  • Depressed immune system because of treatment to fight the cancer
  • Weakness due to malnutrition, illness or frailty from age can increase the risk of developing an infection

What Is Cancer?

As described above, cancer is a disease that occurs when abnormal cells divide and invade body tissues. The cancer diagnosis is determined by where it starts and is called the primary site if the cancer has spread. If someone is admitted to the hospital with metastasized liver cancer, although it has spread elsewhere, the cancer is still called liver cancer because this is where it began.

Cancer can be solid, usually called tumors, but all tumors are not necessarily cancer. Benign tumors are masses that are not cancerous (remember: “B” for better). Tumors that are cancerous are called malignant.

Cancers of the blood or the lymph system are not solid cancers so there are no tumors. Instead, the cancer cells circulate through the body through the blood and lymph fluid.

How Do You Get Cancer?

Researchers don’t yet know exactly how or why cancer starts, but they do know that certain events can trigger cancer or increase the likelihood of developing cancer. Many of these triggers are lifestyle choices, such as smoking (lung, mouth and throat cancers) or getting too much sun exposure without skin protection (skin cancer), while others may be inadvertent, such as being exposed to carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals.


Celebrities with cancer-related sepsis

Former Montreal Expo pitcher Ron Piche died of “cancer and blood poisoning” in 2011.

Illinois’ former first lady, Lura Lynn Ryan.