What I Never Knew About Chemo

by Jan Owen James

Many of you have been through chemo or have walked alongside those who have. But nothing prepared me for the mountain of learning that I’ve had to gain in order to safely journey my way through chemo. I figure that if I didn’t know some of the following tidbits, there are probably some of you who didn’t either. So as a public service, here’s what I never knew about chemo.

Even though we think our “white blood counts” are what count, it’s really your ANC level (Absolute Neutrophil Count) that tells the docs how well your system can fight off infection. So get used to asking for that number! 1.6-9.3 is a normal ANC level.

Normal white blood counts are between 4 and 11. Chemo can knock your white blood count down to almost nothing, making you very, very susceptible to any infection/virus. So OCD hygiene is a must during your post-chemo week.

That means no hugs or shaking hands during post-chemo week! I am practicing my response to an offer for a hug or hand: “I would love to hug you (shake your hand), but I’m going through cancer treatment right now, and it’s recommended that I avoid direct contact with anyone this week. How are you doing today?”

You need to avoid anyone who even has a hint of not feeling well.

Your vision changes after chemo. I’m being told that this is a temporary condition and that it should return, but I was very surprised to experience fuzzy vision after only one chemo treatment.

When your ANC is low, you’re called “neutropenic.” During your neutropenia phase, it is highly recommended that you do not consume ANY raw fruits or vegetables.

Even between chemo cycles, it was recommended to me that I scrub all raw fruits and veggies well before eating them. And I shouldn’t eat foods (like raspberries) that cannot be washed well at all! You should scrub fruits and vegetables that have rough surfaces, such as melons, before you cut them.

When neutropenic, you should avoid eating at restaurants because you can’t ensure that all foods were prepared properly and safely. And you should eat deli meats that were cut by human hands, because you can’t ensure that person’s hygiene.

Avoid construction areas. These release fungus into the air (like aspirgillus) that can be deadly to an immuno-compromised patient.

Do not have fresh flowers or plants around. Anything grown in dirt has bacteria on it!

Don’t clean kitty litters, or fish tanks, and don’t “scoop poop.”


Any surprises to you here? There were to me! I hope this information was helpful. As much as we think a bouquet of flowers would cheer up a chemo patient, please remember that during their post-chemo week, that could actually cause a problem … who knew?

Learning along the journey,