Immune cells floating, magnified

How Can You Boost Your Immune System?

Our immune system is an important part of our bodies. It protects us from getting sick and helps us heal. Having advanced breast cancer can weaken your immune system. But there are some steps you can take that may help.1,2

What is the immune system?

The immune system is made up of several parts of your body. It includes organs, white blood cells, proteins, tissue, and chemicals. Our immune systems protect us from invaders like bacteria, viruses, parasites, and cancer cells.1,2

The immune system does many things to keep us safe. These include:1,2

  • Identifying harmful invaders
  • Attacking invaders that may be harmful
  • Learning about invaders you have contact with and making antibodies against them
  • Using antibodies to protect you in the future

White blood cells are the main immune system cell that protects us. There are many different types of white blood cells, for example lymphocytes, monocytes, and macrophages. The most common type of white blood cell is called a neutrophil.1,2

If your immune system is not working properly, you may be immunosuppressed. This is also called immunocompromised. There are several different possible causes of immunosuppression.1,2

How does breast cancer impact the immune system?

The cancer itself and cancer treatments both can impact your immune system. Our bone marrow cells have important roles in making white blood cells. If cancer has spread to your bone marrow, it can harm bone marrow cells. If too many bone marrow cells are harmed, your body may not be able to make enough white blood cells to keep you safe.1,2

The most common cause of a weakened immune system is chemotherapy. But many different types of breast cancer treatment can impact your immune system. This includes:1,2

  • Surgery
  • Radiation
  • Stem cell transplants
  • Immunotherapy

Any of these treatments can lower your number of white blood cells. If you have low numbers of neutrophils, you may have neutropenia. This means your immune system is very weak.1,2

When your immune system is weakened, it increases your chance of infection. Also, it increases the risk that an infection will become serious. This can be life threatening.2,3

Ways to boost your immune system

The best way to boost your immune system is to try and make healthy lifestyle changes. This includes:1,4,5

  • Eat a healthy balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. If your cancer or treatment is making it hard to eat enough food, reach out to your doctor or dietitian.
  • If your doctor says it is safe, try gentle exercise. Staying active helps your immune system work well.
  • Try to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Make sure to get enough sleep.
  • Keep your vaccinations up to date.
  • Do not smoke or use tobacco products.

Eating or avoiding certain foods does not directly impact your white blood cell count. But there is some limited research linking supplements to a boosted immune system. Some minerals, herbs, or vitamins that are linked to improving immune response are:2,4-6

  • Ginseng
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Echinacea
  • Zinc
  • Magnesium

Natural supplements are not regulated in the same way as traditional drugs. Talk with your doctor before starting any alternative treatments. Even though they are natural, they may interact with other drugs.4-6

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