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As discussed earlier, chemotherapy cannot tell the difference between a cancer cell and a healthy cell. As a result, chemotherapy can destroy normal cells in hair, skin, bone, blood, and other areas of your body. Among the normal cells it can destroy are white blood cells. These cells help your body fight infection, which is one of the most serious possible side effects of chemotherapy. A dangerously low white blood cell count is called neutropenia (new-tro-pee-neeuh). Because white blood cells help your body fight infections, neutropenia makes your body less able to protect itself.

Infections are especially dangerous for people receiving chemotherapy.

  • Infections can temporarily disrupt your cancer treatment or result in having your treatment dose decreased. Both of these situations may jeopardize the effectiveness of your cancer treatment.
  • If you get an infection during chemotherapy, you may need to be hospitalized. Today, most cancer patients are treated outside of the hospital. Unplanned hospitalizations can disrupt your life by restricting your daily activities, such as work and childcare, and force you to be away from your family and your support network. In addition, being in the hospital can increase your exposure to even more infections.
  • Finally, infections at their most serious can be life threatening.

Infections can start in almost any part of your body, including your mouth, skin, lung, urinary tract, colon, rectum, and reproductive tract. Treatment is usually antibiotics; hospitalization may be necessary. In fact, if your body cannot fight infections, even a case of bronchitis can be life threatening and require hospitalization.

Low white blood cell count or related infections can force you to change or delay your chemotherapy treatment. Low white blood cell count is the most common cause of dose reductions in chemotherapy. Your goal is to make your chemotherapy as effective as possible while still being as safe as possible and affording you the best quality of life. In some cases, drugs can be used to prevent neutropenia, in other cases the best strategy is dose reduction. Your care team considers the risks and benefits of various approaches to your treatment.

Remember, when you experience side effects, it is important to contact Texas Oncology first before going to an emergency room or urgent care clinic.