As my regular readers know, my very close friend “Jay” (not his real name) was diagnosed recently with throat cancer, from out of the blue with no hint of what was coming. Now, about a month after starting radiation and chemotherapy treatments his doctors have ordered, people he texts updates to are watching how things are progressing, praying for best possible outcomes.
After only a few days of chemotherapy, Jay said he had lost his appetite. While no giant, this hard-working man had always been eager to tie on the feed bag and could pack away large quantities of food. Not no more. He said he has lost interest in eating and can’t keep solids down very well.
Experts say these known side effects of cancer therapies go away after the treatments stop in most cases.
A few days ago, Jay was hospitalized and isolated due to a very low white blood cell count caused by the combination of treatments he has been undergoing for the past few weeks. Ten days ago, the chemo treatment scheduled for the following day was postponed for a week due to a reduced platelet count.
I have written a separate article about what platelets are and what they do. In a nutshell, platelets are colorless blood cells made in the bone marrow that are key to normal blood clotting and plugging damaged blood vessels. Bone marrow is the soft, spongy tissue inside the body’s larger bones that is a key part of the body’s immune system.
Bone marrow, the tonsils, thymus, and spleen, make up the lymphatic system. This network of lymph vessels and nodes cleanses the clear, slow-moving lymph fluid that lazes around our bodies outside of the bloodstream.
Lymph delivers oxygen and essential nutrients to the cells and takes away waste products (such as carbon dioxide – CO2) that flow out from the cells. The lymphatic system works together to route the lymph fluid, now filtered and carrying salts and proteins, back to the heart for re-entry into the bloodstream.
While researching lymph nodes, I found out that they are linked directly to some types of carcinogenic malignancies:
“Cancer can occur in the lymph nodes in one of two ways: either it starts there (called lymphoma) or it has spread from some other part of the body. Cancer cells that break away from a malignant tumor can travel to other areas of the body through either the bloodstream or the lymph system. In this way, a carcinoma that starts in the throat can wind up in the heart or lungs.”
Bone marrow damage is one of the most common and dangerous side effects of chemotherapy.
Now, let’s see why someone with a low white blood cell count needs to be kept away from others?
LOW WHITE BLOOD CELL COUNT
Doctors order a blood test called a complete blood count to measure how many white blood cells are present in a specified amount of fluid.
It turns out that white blood cells, just like platelets, are manufactured in bone marrow. White blood cells (WBCs), a part of the immune system that battles infection and protects the body from foreign substances, come in different types that do different things.
WBCs or (leukocytes) recognize intruders, destroy harmful bacteria, and produce antibodies to protect the body from future exposure to certain disease-causing pathogens.
The most common causes for a low white blood cell count are:
- Viral infections that temporarily interfere with bone marrow functions
- Certain congenital (inborn) disorders that involve diminished bone marrow function
- Cancer or other diseases that damage bone marrow
- Autoimmune disorders (such as lupus) that kill white blood cells or bone marrow cells
- Severe infections that use up white blood cells faster than they can be produced
- Medications (such as antibiotics) that destroy white blood cells
- Sarcoidosis (collections of inflammatory cells in the body)
- Splenic “sequestration” that accumulates leukocytes in the spleen
Chemotherapy destroys white blood cells, especially the kind called neutrophils which are the immune system’s “first responders.” Neutrophils are made in the bone marrow and travel in the blood throughout the body. When they sense an infection, they gather where the infection is and start destroying the harmful organisms.
Chemotherapy-induced neutropenia – a decrease in neutrophils during chemo sessions – raises the risk of serious infection. A low level of neutrophils is dangerous because bacteria that normally pose little threat can cause serious infections.
An adult with fewer than 1,000 neutrophils in a microliter of blood has neutropenia. Fewer than 500 neutrophils in a microliter of blood is called severe neutropenia.
Patients with low WBC counts are advised to stay away from sick people until their levels improve, indicating stronger immunity.
And that’s why Jay was isolated in the hospital – for his own safety, to safeguard him from infection while his leukocyte and platelet counts are below normal.
After the radiation and chemo treatments are done, Jay has every chance to recover his health. This is his plan and everyone who cares for him thinks it’s a great idea.