Taking Care of Your Immune System

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Many people with cancer wonder if there’s anything they can do to boost their immune systems — to fight off the cancer, help their bodies deal with the side effects of treatment, and lower the risk of recurrence. We don’t have evidence there’s anything you can do to boost your immune system. However, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests you can take steps to help your immune system do its job. Common-sense practices such as getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, exercising, and reducing stress all appear to play some role in immune system function.

We’ll provide an overview below and then link you to other sections of Breastcancer.org for more information.

Sleep

Getting 7 or more uninterrupted hours of sleep per night can help your immune system function well. There’s a growing body of evidence that sleep deprivation suppresses the immune system, lowering your defenses against illness and infection. Before, during, and after breast cancer treatment, good-quality sleep is important.

Easier said than done, right? Breast cancer itself can be stressful, which can interfere with a good night’s sleep. Certain treatments can cause side effects that interfere with sleep, too. For some women, breast cancer diagnosis happens as they’re going through menopause, which also can lead to sleep problems. Occasional sleep troubles are OK, but if you’re struggling night after night, it’s time to take action.

For strategies you can use to improve sleep, visit our Insomnia page and the Think Pink, Live Green column Sleep Well: Turn In, Tune Out, and Unplug. If these don’t work for you, talk to your doctor about possible options.

Nutrition

A healthy, well-balanced diet is essential to your overall health and your immune system. Breastcancer.org’s Nutrition section gives you all the information you need to plan your diet and eat well throughout your treatment — even at times when you might not feel much like eating! Also, be wary of vitamins and supplements making claims that they can boost or super-charge the immune system. They’re not likely to help any more than whole, fresh foods do, and some could even interfere with the treatments you’re having. This, too, is covered in more detail in our Nutrition section.

Exercise

Researchers have long observed the positive effects of moderate amounts of exercise on the immune system. Our Exercise section features detailed information about how to get started and maintain an exercise routine, how to exercise safely, and tips for exercise during and after various forms of breast cancer treatment.

Stress reduction

It's well known that chronically high levels of stress hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol) 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, yoga, massage, support groups, and other techniques may help you reduce stress, which in turn may help keep your immune system functioning well. You can talk to your doctor or nurse to find out what’s available and what may be the best fit for you.

Visit Breastcancer.org’s section on Complementary & Holistic Medicine to learn more about treatments that can reduce stress. These are called “complementary” treatments because they are used together with standard medical treatments such as surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and hormonal therapy.

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