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 called metastasis.

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. Having cancer and undergoing certain treatments for cancer, such as chemotherapy, can result in a weakened immune system, putting you at higher risk for developing an infection that could lead to sepsis.

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

Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumonia, influenza, or urinary tract infections. 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, organ dysfunction (organs 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. 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.

What are the symptoms of cancer?

Signs and symptoms of cancer depend on where the cancer is. As the organ is invaded by cancer cells or the cancer spreads, the signs may start. For example, colon cancer (cancer in the bowels) may not be noticed until you:

  • Start losing weight
  • Experience either diarrhea or constipation more than usual for you
  • Become very fatigued
  • Experience nausea and vomiting
  • Stop eating because of lack appetite

As you can see, the symptoms are similar to what could be for many other illnesses, so cancer may not be automatically suspected.

How is cancer treated?

Each type of cancer is different and there are many differences among each type, as well. One woman with breast cancer may have a different type of breast cancer than another.

The decision of how to treat each particular case of cancer rests on the doctor, your test results, and your overall state of health. Some cancers respond better to chemotherapy than radiotherapy, others are the other way around. Some cancers need radiotherapy to shrink the tumor before chemotherapy can be done or before surgery to remove the tumor. In yet other cases, surgery is done first, followed by treatment.

Several types of cancer, such as colon cancer and skin cancer, have a very high cure rate if detected early. The key is, though, early detection.

Can cancer be prevented?

In many cases, the risk of cancer can be dropped by changes in your lifestyle. Of course, this is no guarantee that you will never get cancer, but a lower risk is better than a higher one.

Eating healthy foods, exercising and minimizing stress in your life seem to be the key factors in trying to reduce your own risks. As well, screening regularly for common cancers or for cancers that you may be at-risk for because of a family history or previous illness, plays a large role in curing or managing cancer.

Ask your doctor or healthcare provider what types of screening tests you should have and at what ages.

If you suspect sepsis, call 9-1-1 or go to a hospital and tell your medical professional, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.” 

Would you like to share your story about sepsis or read about others who have had sepsis? Please visit Faces of Sepsis, where you will find hundreds of stories from survivors and tributes to those who died from sepsis.

Updated December 13, 2017