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 multiply uncontrollably. Unlike normal cells, which 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. Neutropenic sepsis refers to sepsis related to chemotherapy and treatments for cancer.

Suggested Citation:
Sepsis Alliance. Sepsis and Cancer. 2023. https://www.sepsis.org/sepsisand/cancer/

Updated December 12, 2023.

 

More About Cancer

Sepsis Risks

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 invasive devices like 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
Causes

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.

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.

Treatment

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.

Prevention

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.

Related Resources

Sepsis and Cancer

Information Guide

Cancer

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Charles Butters

Charles (Chuck) was my husband of 41 years who died from sepsis 3 years ago after a valiant fight with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. (Sepsis and Cancer) He was diagnosed with lymphoma and had surgery, chemo, and radiation. He remained in remission for over a year and he used this time to travel. He experienced relapse of lymphoma and started another round of chemo with a goal of stem cell transplant. (Sepsis and Impaired Immune System) After the first treatment, he began having some confusion, fever, and weakness. We went immediately to the ED but it was already too late. He was ... Read Full Story

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Krista P.

My mother, my best friend, died of sepsis in November 2023. She had just turned 72 in the hospital. Although she had some chronic health issues, she had been doing well despite them. She had been on dialysis for the last three years, and she had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (caught so early that the doctors said they could “hardly see the tumor on the scan”). We knew she wasn’t going to live forever, but we thought there would be a slow decline, a little warning at least. No one had even talked to us about advanced directives. ... Read Full Story

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Alyssa W.

My name is Alyssa and I am a sepsis survivor. Back in 2018 when I was 21 years old, I was sick with what I thought was the flu. By the third day, it hurt to even breathe. My mom took me to the ER for a chest x-ray because we assumed I had pneumonia. What came back on the chest x-ray was not pneumonia, but a tumor the size of my fist. It turned out that I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I was admitted to the hospital so they could run tests and do a CT. In that CT, they ... Read Full Story

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Rita Gibbs

Born with hereditary spherocytosis – my red blood cells are shaped like a sphere causing my white blood cells to destroy them. My first blood transfusion was at 6 weeks of age and spleen removed at 6 years old. Setting me up for a long life of health issues and a total of 5 septic shock situations. (Sepsis and Septic Shock) The first time I was 28 years old going through cervical cancer. I had to have my cervix removed and 2 days later I was having severe abdominal pain and a fever of 102 with no spleen to help ... Read Full Story

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Didi P.

I am a RN and also sepsis coordinator for my hospital. My mother was battling stage 4 ovarian cancer for 2 years when she developed a cough after Halloween. (Sepsis and Cancer) She was receiving chemotherapy and I encouraged her to see a doctor for her cough. A cough to us isn’t much, but can be deadly for someone on chemo. She dismissed me and stated she was ok. A couple days later she feels worse and needs my breathing machine to help her. I, once again, strongly encouraged her to see a doctor or go to the ED. She ... Read Full Story

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Other Topics

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 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.