Cancer treatment, food handling and infections

Cancer and cancer treatments weaken the body’s immune system by affecting white blood cells that protect against disease. As a result, your body cannot fight infection as well as a healthy person’s body can.

Good food hygiene, such as the basic guidelines below, is important for everybody. However, if you have had a bone marrow transplant or your white cell count is low, particularly during chemotherapy, extra care needs to be taken with food preparation as you will be more susceptible to food-borne illness. Most food poisoning results from improper handling and improper storage of food. Speak to your doctor or dietitian regarding any special food handling conditions which may apply to your stage of treatment.

Basic food safety guidelines

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before you prepare or eat food.
  • Choose freshly cooked and freshly prepared foods. Take care when eating out, as it can be difficult to know whether food safety guidelines are being followed. When possible ask for meals to be made fresh and avoid foods that have been sitting for unknown periods of time.
  • Always thaw frozen food in the fridge or defrost in the microwave, rather than on the bench and do not re–freeze thawed food.
  • Keep raw meat covered, and keep it separate from cooked food or ready–to–eat food. Use separate utensils and chopping boards for raw meat and vegetables.
  • Thoroughly wash knives, cutting boards and food preparation areas with hot soapy water before preparing food.
  • Thoroughly wash and dry all fruit and vegetables, especially if eating them raw or juicing them.
  • Make sure all meat, poultry, fish and eggs are very well cooked.
  • Make sure foods are steaming hot when re–heated. Heat food for at least two to three minutes to above 70°C all the way through.
  • Hot food should be kept above 70°C, and cold food below 5°C.
  • Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, especially meat, chicken and seafood. Refrigerate leftover food immediately – don’t let it cool on the benchtop, and consume within 24 hours.
  • Check the use–by dates on packaged foods and dispose of any food that is out of date.

It is important to take care and potentially avoid the following high risk foods, as they may contain bacteria or viruses that can cause food-borne illnesses:

  • Pre–made sandwiches or salads, sushi or food from food warmers or buffets.
  • Raw and undercooked seafood, meats and poultry. Make sure these foods are cooked thoroughly and reheated until they’re steaming hot.
  • Cold deli meats and chicken – packaged or unpackaged – unless reheated to steaming hot.
  • Foods containing raw or partially cooked eggs, e.g. homemade mayonnaise, mousse, egg nog.
  • Cold smoked seafood and ‘ready–to–eat’ peeled prawns.
  • Raw sprouts and commercial ‘ready–to–eat’ deli salads, including pre–cut fruit salads.
  • Pate, liverwurst and meat spreads.
  • Soft, semi–soft and surface ripened cheeses such as blue, brie, camembert, ricotta and feta.
  • Soft–serve ice creams and drinks made with soft–serve ice cream.
  • Unpasteurised dairy products such as raw goat’s milk, cheeses and yoghurts made from raw milk.
This information was last reviewed in June 2013

This information has been reviewed by: Jenelle Loeliger, Head – Nutrition Department, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Kate Aigner, Cancer Information Consultant, Cancer Council Helpline ACT; Ian Anderson, Consumer; Anna Boltong, PhD Candidate (Dietitian), Department of Cancer Experiences Research, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Clare Hughes, Nutrition Program Manager, Cancer Council NSW; Bridget Kehoe, Public Health Coordinator (Nutrition and Physical Activity), Cancer Council QLD; Steve Pratt, Nutrition and Physical Activity Manager, Cancer Council WA; and Roswitha Stegmann, Helpline Nurse, Cancer Council WA.

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