Why people living with cancer may have a weakened immune system

Chemotherapy, radiation, and other pharmaceutical drugs used to treat cancer may weaken the immune system.

In some cases, the cancer itself can weaken the immune system, by affecting the bone marrow where many of our immune cells are created. The immune system is involved in defending the body from illness and infection, so we need to support the immune system in people with cancer to prevent illness.

Enhancing specific parts of the immune system that are involved in identifying and destroying cancer cells in the body can be key. However, this is often more complicated because the cancer cells may hide from our immune system.

How to monitor the immune system

One simple way is by looking at the ratio of neutrophils to lymphocytes, which are two types of our white blood cells that are seen in the most common blood test, the complete blood count (or CBC).

A more advanced way is the natural killer (NK) cell functional assay that we run for many of our cancer patients. This test looks at the activity of NK cells, which are a type of lymphocyte that kills cancer cells. They can help to prevent the spread of cancer by identifying and destroying cancer cells that are sent out into the blood and lymph systems by the primary tumor. 

We offer treatments that can support anti-cancer immune activity

Cancer patients are more likely to need multi-level immune support, which starts with the basics that we’ve mentioned on our blog about immune health, including a varied, nutritious high vegetable, low glycemic diet, good rest, and targeted treatments.

We offer a personalized approach: we recommend the best available treatments based on the cancer type and staging, blood tests, imaging results, and symptoms. 

  • Medicinal mushrooms such as reishi and coriolus (turkey tail) are potent immunomodulators, which means that they have positive invigorating effects on the immune system but they are not immune stimulants meaning they can be taken long term. Coriolus extracts stimulate NK cells and lymphocytes (white blood cells), which are safe to take with most cancers and standard oncology treatments. 

  • Low dose naltrexone (LDN) increases the NK cell numbers and NK cell activity, and lymphocyte activated CD8 numbers (another anti-cancer immune cell).

  • Mistletoe lectins stimulate many parts of the immune system: macrophages, anti-cancer CD8+ T-lymphocytes, CD4+ T-cells, NK cell number and activity, dendritic antigen-presenting cells, and cytotoxic complement.

  • The lining of our gut is also a highly active and important location of our immune system, to which L-glutamine stimulates NK cells and supports the lining of the gut which can be damaged during chemotherapy and radiation.

  • Oral vitamin C increases NK cell activity.

We want to emphasize that quality is crucial when it comes to supplements (especially in cancer) so that the medicine is potent, safe, and effective. Therefore, we recommend only using the highest quality brands that we curate and prescribe. And to avoid interactions between supplements and standard cancer medications, we also recommend working with a naturopathic oncology doctor.

If you’d like to support your immune system during cancer or cancer prevention, schedule an appointment with Dr. Sullivan or Dr. Cochran by calling us at (425) 361-7945.