Clean House while on Cancer Treatment

Last Modified: January 19, 2007

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Dear OncoLink "Ask The Experts,"

This may seem like an odd question. My mom is about to start chemotherapy for stage II breast cancer.

The question is, will the condition/cleanliness of my mom's home impact her health during treatment? Mom has never been a neat freak as it's just not a priority for her, and up until now it hasn't caused her any issues.

However, if she is going to be at risk for infection [secondary to the treatment] and the home is messy/dirty, could it complicate things?


Nancy Zieber, RN, MSN, CRNP, Oncology/Hematology Nurse Practitioner, responds:

During the chemotherapy treatments, it is common for the white blood cells (WBC's, which fight infection in the body) to be decreased in number. Most often the WBC count is lowered to an "acceptable" level, and most healthy women do not develop fever, chills, or infection. It is also common for women being treated for breast cancer to have an injection of a drug called Neulasta on the day after chemotherapy to help maintain the white blood cells at a more normal level.

So while on chemotherapy with blood counts lower than normal, your mother is at risk for infection. Most often these infections come from bacteria within our own body, but because the white blood cell count is low, the bacteria may present in an area which can cause infection. For example, it is normal for everyone to have bacteria in their bowel/stool. You or I might have some of that bowel bacteria enter our bladders, but our body's normal defenses, (like the white blood cells) manage to take care of the bacteria. However, for someone on chemotherapy who has low white blood cells, the bacteria may cause a bladder infection.

It would be best to have a clean house with routine vacuuming, dusting, mopping, sink cleaning, regular dish-washing, crumb removal off surfaces, etc. If the house is actually dirty now, then it should be cleaned first. Ultimately the most important way to prevent infection during treatment is good hand washing, meaning both by mom and by all visitors. During treatment, people are often too tired to clean, so household chores may be something you or other loved ones could do to "help her out", while at the same time taking care of your own worries.

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