Boosting the Immune System to Fight Cancer

Leer esta página en español

Nearly every woman diagnosed with breast cancer feels conflicted about accepting treatment that knocks down her immune system. Intuition that tells you (more like SHOUTS at you) that you need to build up your immune system to combat the cancer and to restore your overall health. Once you understand that you need effective treatment to deal with a threat as serious as cancer, and you go ahead with your treatment, you still need to listen to your intuition. It does make sense that your immune system needs to be nurtured. Here are some practical ways to help you help yourself.

Complementary approaches to fighting infection and cancer

Nutrition, stress reduction, support groups, exercise—intriguing new studies suggest that these fundamental but non-traditional interventions may strengthen the immune system. For example, improved immune cell function has been documented after people with melanoma, a malignant skin cancer, attended regular support group meetings. Other studies find that women in breast cancer support groups live longer than those who don't join such groups. Researchers speculate that one reason is the stress-reducing, immune-supporting effects that these groups provide.


Any thing your body does is crippled by poor nutrition. This is true for healing a wound, building immune cell blood counts, and even managing stress. Attention to good nutrition makes sense whether it specifically benefits the immune system or not.

The power of nutrition to strengthen the immune function is not yet fully understood. But two leaders in the field: Dr. Keith Block (University of Illinois and the Block Medical Center, Evanston, Illinois), and Dr. Mitch Gaynor (Strang-Cornell Cancer Prevention Center, New York City), focus on nutrition as a means of reducing cancer risk and cancer death and increasing quality of life. Their work emphasizes vegetarian diets and fat restriction, coupled with stress reduction and other complementary medicine therapies. They believe these factors combine to strengthen the immune system.

Proponents of these innovative, non-traditional therapies say that excess weight and eating too much cholesterol and other fats are risk factors for cancer. They say that fat appears to reduce white cell production, affecting T-cell and macrophage activity. Further, they say, obesity and a poor diet compromise the lymphatic system, making the body more vulnerable to infection and disease. Eating large amounts of protein, such as that found in animal products, they believe, contributes to these undesirable effects. Thus, their nutritional programs strictly limit proteins that come from animal foods and unhealthy fats. In particular, stick to the monounsaturated fats like canola oil and olive oil, and avoid saturated fats like coconut oil, palm oils, and animal fats.

Read the transcript of a Conference on food choices for cancer recovery.

Supplements vs. food

All experts agree that vitamins and other important nutrients are best eaten in whole foods rather than swallowed as processed supplements. Whole foods may contain many other valuable components that we currently know little about. Fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, mushrooms, herbs, teas, omega-3 fatty acids (found in freshwater fish like salmon and mackerel), complex carbohydrates, yogurt, and seaweed are believed to increase the activity of T cells and their escort cells, and to increase the production of antibodies and fighting cells.

In traditional Chinese medicine, herbal remedies and food are part of the same spectrum. Herbs may be used as a medicine. Usually a carefully selected combination of herbs are used together, which might come from the root, bark, leaves, or seeds of various plants). Or herbs may be incorporated into food as an ingredient (mushrooms) or as a spice (cilantro). In both instances, the herbs enhance your well-being. Anything that improves overall health is also likely to strengthen the immune system.


Researchers have long observed the positive effects of moderate amounts of exercise on the immune system. Now they're beginning to look at the effects moderate exercise can have on the immune systems of cancer patients in the midst of treatment. In one small study, researchers found that moderate exercise (three or more times a week) increased the immune cell counts of women undergoing breast cancer treatment back to normal levels, and also improved the women's mood and ability to handle their feelings comfortably.

Stress reduction

It's well known that chronically high levels of stress hormones (like adrenaline) suppress the immune system and reduce the body's ability to defend or repair itself. That's why many cancer centers and hospitals have begun offering stress reduction therapy along with traditional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation. Meditation, visualization, yoga, and other relaxation techniques may help bolster your immune system and assist in fighting the effects of the cancer. Talk to your doctor or nurse about using these techniques in conjunction with your regular treatment.

Read the transcript of a conference on stress and your immune system.

Was this resource helpful?

Yes No
Back to Top