If your immune system has been weakened by your cancer treatment, you might need to take extra precautions with food hygiene and safety. Take a look at what you can do to protect yourself.

When treatments weaken your immune system you might be more susceptible to food-borne illnesses, and you might find it more difficult to recover from such illnesses. The good news is that there are several approaches you can take to reduce your risk. 

Food Choices

Some foods are more risky than others. Generally, the foods most likely to contain harmful bacteria fall into two categories:

  • Uncooked fruits and vegetables. Unwashed fresh products present a higher risk, whereas washed fresh products or cooked fruits and vegetables present a lower risk.  
    • Make sure you wash any kind of fresh produce very well. A good habit is to wash all produce as soon as you bring it home. The FDA recommends washing fresh produce under running water, and doesn’t recommend the use of commercial wash products. However, tests show that washing produce with water and vinegar mixed together can help remove more bacteria than washing with water alone. Use three parts water to one part vinegar.
      • Fill a spray bottle with the vinegar water and spray on the produce. Rinse off under running water.
      • If the food has lots of crevices, like broccoli, it will be difficult to spray so instead soak it for two minutes in the vinegar water. Rinse off under running water.
  • Some animal products. Unpasteurized milks and cheeses, and raw or undercooked animal products such as eggs, meat, poultry, and fish present a higher risk. Avoid raw milks, cheeses, sushi, raw eggs in salad dressings etc. Lower risk products are pasteurized milk and cheeses, and animal products cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature (see chart below).

Food safety illustration showing four steps - clean, separate, cook, and chill as discussed in blog post on CALMERme.comFood safety

There are four basic steps to food safety. They may seem obvious, but its important to make sure that anyone who prepares food for you follows them:

  1. Wash hands and food prep surfaces before, during, and after handling food.
  2. Don’t cross-contaminate one food product to another. This means that foods like raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs should be kept separate from ready-to-eat foods. As an example, if raw meat has been cut on a chopping board, don’t use that same board for slicing your bread on until the board has been washed in hot soapy water.
  3. Cook at safe temperatures (see chart below) using a food thermometer to check.
  4. Chill and refrigerate promptly. Cold temperatures slow the growth of bacteria, so keep your fridge at 40F or below. Refrigerate cooked food within two hours. Thaw frozen food in the refrigerator, never at room temperature, then cook promptly.

Chart showing the temperatures that different foods should be cooked to, in order to reduce risk of food borne illnesses as discussed in blog post on CALMERme.com

Leftovers

If your appetite is smaller than usual, the chances are that you have a lot of leftovers that you don’t want to go to waste. If that’s the case, these points are of particular importance to you. The “Food Safety” guidelines above apply to leftovers too. If the leftover food is reheated, use a thermometer to check the internal temperature, and if you don’t eat it all, refrigerate again within 2 hours. 

Food safety infographic for cancer patients as discussed in blog post on CALMERme.com

Food storage

I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts that you might find yourself in a situation where your fridge/freezer is full of lovely food that has been cooked by others. This can be a good thing or a bad thing: the last thing you want is to see all that food go to waste, but there’s so much of it to eat… It’s worth taking a moment to think about how best to store all this food, because a plan can help when it comes to defrosting and reheating meals. Because your appetite might be small and you might be grazing on food throughout the day rather than eating full meals at set times, it can be a real boon to have food items already portioned out in small containers. Here are some ideas:

  • Freeze soups, broths, and cooked dishes in individual portion sizes. If someone is going to eat with you, you can easily pull out two dishes.
  • Label all the containers before you freeze them with the date, contents, and quantity.
  • When freezing liquids, leave about one inch head space at the top of the container for expansion as it freezes.
  • As a general rule, fruit and vegetables can be frozen for about eight months, meat and poultry for about three months, and fish and shellfish for about six months.
  • Remember to defrost items in the fridge rather than on the counter, if you can.

Please add your ideas to the comments section. We’d love to hear from you.

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