Bad bugs like MRSA, much like criminals, are opportunistic: they take an advantage of the vulnerable – the elderly, children, and people who are sick, such as cancer patients.
It works like this. Cancer is treated by surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy – using drugs to destroy cancer cells. Some patients undergo all three.
But as we know cancer treatment comes with side effects. A major one is the increased risk of contracting a serious, often deadly, infection.
And when that happens we turn to antibiotics. In fact, many cancer patients need antibiotics during all stages of their treatment.
That’s because, with surgery, at least 5% of patients will develop an infection.
Radiation therapy kills cancer cells but it also kills nearby healthy cells of the hair, skin, mouth and gut linings. When we lose these protective barrier-like cells your risk of getting an infection goes up.
Chemotherapy, used to stop the growth of cancer cells, also weakens the immune system and so it too increases your risk of infection.
The upshot is that cancer survival rates decrease when you can’t control infections due to antibiotic resistance: i.e., the bad bugs have evolved (changed) since antibiotics were first introduced in the 1940s, and now they’re often too tough for the drugs to have any effect on. It’s as if they’ve acquired bullet proof vests and we’re still trying to kill them with 70-year-old six shooters.
This rise of resistance matters because according to the World Health Organization there’s approximately 14 million new cases of cancer worldwide each year. The WHO also tells us that the number of these new cases will go up a whopping 70% over the next two decades.
So is there anything that we can do about what the WHO calls “a problem so serious that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine,” such as cancer treatment?
The UK Global Initiative on Antibiotic Action says that not only is there something we can do, there’s actually something that we must do, and it’s this:
- Don’t ask and don’t expect antibiotics for colds, sore throats, or flu—these are caused by viruses so antibiotics don’t work.
- Only take antibiotics given to you by your doctor and EXACTLY as written on the bottle and always complete the full course.
- Never give your antibiotics to other people.
So the good news is that by doing something very simple, we can do something very good — we can, in a very concrete way, help cancer patients, now and into the future.
People like the girl in the picture, for instance.