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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 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 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.

In the developing world, malignant diseases (cancers) are becoming increasingly survivable. 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 that there were 1,735,350 new cases of cancer reported in the U.S. in 2018 – 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 certain treatments, such as chemotherapy, can weaken the 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. 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 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.

Sepsis risk with cancer

People with cancer are particularly susceptible to developing sepsis. Here are some statistics related to sepsis and cancer:


cancer patient

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 in 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 exactly how or why malignancies start, but they do 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 being exposed to carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals.

What are the symptoms?

Signs and symptoms of cancer depend on where the malignancy is. As the malignant cells invade the organ  or the disease spreads, the signs may start. 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 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?

In many cases, you can lower the risk 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 own risks. As well, screening regularly for common cancers. Screening is also important if you have a family history or previous illness.

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 November 1, 2021.

Read Personal Stories of Sepsis and Cancer

Estelle Botha


Our beautiful, talented 15-year-old ballerina girl passed away from sepsis while she was under chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. (Sepsis and Cancer) At the time of her passing, we did not know the cause, and no-one used the word « sepsis » to help us make sense of the tragedy. Estelle had been telling her doctor that she was not feeling well and asking for a longer respite from chemotherapy sessions, but the doctor merely stated that chemo makes one feel unwell and that she must not skip chemo sessions. Four months into the treatment, Estelle was having a particularly difficult week, ... Read Full Story

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Holli T.

Tribute, Survivor

I am a 2x triple negative breast cancer survivor AND a 2x sepsis survivor. The day Oregon shut down due to COVID-19, I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. After I went through chemo and recovered, I underwent my second bilateral mastectomy to remove implants from my first bout with cancer (2017). At some point, I touched my dog and then my drain tube. It took less than 8 hours for my drainage to go from normal, to green and gross looking. (Sepsis and Cancer, Sepsis and Surgery, Sepsis and Invasive Devices) I was hospitalized, put on antibiotics. I was ... Read Full Story

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Julianne Winters

Tribute, Survivor, Tribute

What began as a familiar surgery turned into a nightmare for our entire family. In November 2020, Julianne was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in her small intestine, which required the Whipple surgery to remove it. It wasn’t the first time the family had learned of this complicated surgery—her husband, Jim, had the same procedure less than three years prior. (Sepsis and Cancer, Sepsis and Surgery) But with a familiar doctor and hospital at hand, Julianne went in for surgery on December 7. While the surgery went well, she did need to receive blood after experiencing a bleed within the ... Read Full Story

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Natalie Zeleznikar

Tribute, Survivor, Tribute, Survivor

I was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer on my left side in 2015. (Sepsis and Cancer) I elected to have a double mastectomy as a friend had the same kind of cancer and chose a lumpectomy and three months later it went to other breast and she ended up with double mastectomy. I thought I was lucky to be stage 1, and really expected a six week recovery and didn’t worry. I was running an assisted living business as CEO and a few days before my scheduled return, friends came to see me. We had a glass of wine ... Read Full Story

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John Ippolite

Tribute, Survivor, Tribute, Survivor, Tribute

John A. Ippolite, was an exceptionally strong man and father who was a true soldier in battle against numerous difficult, complex rare medical conditions. John was a colon cancer, sepsis, myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) and asbestosis survivor. He battled hard against metastatic lung cancer caused by asbestosis for 18 months; but ultimately passed away from complications related to pneumonia, urosepsis and kidney failure. His superb hematologist, integrative medicine physician, gastroenterologist, kidney doctor and hospital and sub-acute medical professionals had been exceptional and instrumental in saving his life during his years of medical battles. (Sepsis and Pneumonia, Sepsis and Urinary Tract Infections) ... Read Full Story

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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 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 then invade adjacent tissues.