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Understanding Your Immune System

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Your immune system is the network of organs, tissues, and cells that protect your body from foreign invaders such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. When these find their way into the body — whether through a break in the skin, for example, or through your mouth or nose — your immune system’s response is the self-defense mechanism that works to keep you from getting sick.

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, you probably have questions about your immune system, such as:

  • Why didn’t my immune system stop the breast cancer from growing?
  • How will treatments for breast cancer affect my immune system?
  • Is there anything I can do to help my immune system (a) get rid of the breast cancer, (b) boost the treatments’ anticancer effects, and (c) lower the risk of recurrence?

The immune system is amazingly complex, and it’s still not fully understood. This section of provides an overview of the immune system, the potential impact of cancer treatments, and ways to protect yourself when your immune system is weakened. It also suggests some strategies you can follow to help maintain your immune system’s function before, during, and after treatment. Finally, this section talks about some breast cancer treatments, such as Herceptin (chemical name: trastuzumab), that are designed to target breast cancer cells in the same way that the immune system normally targets foreign materials.

Personal Quote

"My immune system was hit hard by chemotherapy. They did a blood count and the intern came back in a panic. 'Your white count — there's nothing lower on the scale!' But then my oncologist came in and told me not to worry. 'You're going to be fine,' he said. I figured, if it's doing this to me, think of what it's doing to the cancer."

— Joan

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