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 multiply uncontrollably. 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 then invade adjacent tissues.
Cancerous cells can also break free from a tumor site and enter the bloodstream. Once they are in the bloodstream, the cells can travel to other parts of the body, spreading the disease to other organs. This process is metastasis.
Malignant diseases (cancers) are becoming increasingly survivable in the developing world. But they are still one of the leading causes of death in countries like the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 1,806,590 new cases of cancer reported in the U.S. in 2020 – the most recent year for which statistics are available.
Death can occur because of the actual tumors, such as when a tumor destroys the liver, or death can occur because of associated conditions, like sepsis. Having cancer and undergoing specific treatments, such as chemotherapy, can weaken the immune system, putting you at higher risk for developing an infection that could lead to sepsis.
Sepsis, which was often called blood poisoning, is the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Like strokes or heart attacks, sepsis is a medical emergency that requires rapid diagnosis and treatment.
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 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.
Sepsis risk with cancer
People with cancer are particularly susceptible to developing sepsis. Here are some statistics related to sepsis and cancer:
Why are people with malignancies at high risk?
There are several reasons why people with malignancies 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 is introduced into the body, the risk of infection goes up.
- Depressed immune system because of treatment
- 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. Oncologists determine the cancer diagnosis by where it starts. It is called by the primary site even if the cancer has spread.
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). If it is cancerous, it is 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 it?
Researchers don’t yet know precisely how or why malignancies start, but they know that certain events can trigger them or increase the likelihood of development. Many of these triggers can be related to some lifestyle factors, such as smoking (lung, mouth, and throat cancers) or getting too much sun exposure without skin protection (skin cancer). Others may be inadvertent, such as exposure to carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals.
What are the symptoms?
Signs and symptoms of cancer depend on where the malignancy is. The signs may start as the malignant cells invade the organ or the disease spreads. For example, you may not notice possible signs of colon or bowel cancer 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 of appetite
As you can see, the symptoms are similar to what could be for many other illnesses, so doctors may not automatically suspect a malignancy.
How do we treat cancer?
Each malignancy is different, and there are many differences among each type of cancer, as well.
The decision of how to treat each particular case rests on the doctor, your test results, and your overall state of health. Some tumors respond better to chemotherapy than radiotherapy; others are the other way around. Some tumors need radiotherapy to shrink them before chemotherapy or before surgery. In yet other cases, surgery is 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 we prevent cancer?
You can lower the risk of some types of cancer by making some lifestyle changes. 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 risks, as well screening regularly for common cancers. Screening is also essential if you have a family history or previous 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.”
You can learn more about infection prevention among people who are immunocompromised by clicking here.
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 January 3, 2023.