Shifting opponents: From fighting cancer to fighting sepsis

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120913Malik.JPGBy Imrana Malik, M.D.

What if you came to the hospital to fight cancer and found yourself fighting something altogether different?

Because of weakened immune systems, cancer patients are at high risk for developing a disorder called sepsis. And because many people have never heard of this disorder before, they don't recognize the symptoms early enough to get help. That's why, worldwide, sepsis causes more deaths each year than prostate cancer, breast cancer and HIV/AIDS combined, according to the Global Sepsis Alliance.

Sepsis happens when the body's immune system kicks in to fight an infection, but instead goes into overdrive and damages its own tissues and organs. This can lead to shock, failure of multiple bodily organs and even death.

Cancer patients aren't the only people with a high risk of developing sepsis: infants, pregnant women and the elderly also have weakened immune systems that can leave them vulnerable. But, cancer patients have a particularly high risk for sepsis because they may have frequent hospital stays, which increases the risk of acquiring an infection.
They may have depressed immune systems because of cancer treatments, and they may have additional weakness due to poor nutrition, illness or frailty from age, all of which can increase the risk of developing an infection.

Sepsis signs
Awareness of the problem and a high degree of suspicion are key. Sepsis can present in many different ways, but some of the most common signs are:

  • Fever and shaking chills
  • Reduced mental alertness, sometimes with confusion 
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Increased heart rate, greater than 90 beats per minute
  • Increased respiratory rate, greater than 30 breaths per minute
  • High or low white blood cell count
  • Low blood pressure
  • Altered kidney or liver function
Prevention: The best medicine
So how do we fight it? There's no single agent or strategy that can treat sepsis. That's why it can be so dangerous. Prevention is the best medicine, which includes good hygiene and hand washing techniques, as well as close attention to the signs. Once the signs of sepsis are present, getting prompt and appropriate medical attention improves patient outcomes.

Thursday, Sept. 13 is World Sepsis Day to increase awareness of the disorder, and MD Anderson has educational materials throughout  its facility.

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