Lung cancer treatments can sometimes lead to other conditions that affect your health. One of these conditions affects neutrophils — white blood cells (WBCs) that help fight infections. When levels of neutrophils in the blood drop too low, it is called neutropenia.
Neutropenia occurs when neutrophil counts drop below 1,500 neutrophils per microliter of blood. If the count drops below 1,000 neutrophils, it is considered dangerous and may require treatment.
Febrile neutropenia is diagnosed if a person has low neutrophil levels along with a fever. A related condition, leukopenia, occurs when the total numbers of white blood cells are low. This may be due to low levels of neutrophils, other WBCs, or all blood cells. Leukopenia may mean that a person has low levels of neutrophils or a different type of WBC.
Studies looking at non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLS) have found that about 1 out 4 people develop mild neutropenia. Another 1 out of 4 people develop severe neutropenia, in which neutrophil levels drop very low. Neutropenia can also occur in people undergoing chemotherapy for any type of cancer.
Lung cancer itself doesn’t affect neutrophil levels. Instead, neutropenia develops as a side effect of lung cancer treatments.
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can cause neutropenia. These treatments kill cancer cells, but they can also kill the body’s healthy cells. In particular, chemotherapy and radiation treatments affect cells that come from stem cells located in the bone marrow (the soft tissue found inside certain bones). Stem cells are responsible for making all of the body’s blood cells. During cancer treatments, blood stem cells often become damaged and have a harder time making new neutrophils. This causes neutrophil levels to drop.
Although neutropenia can cause serious health risks such as infections, having severe neutropenia from chemotherapy is usually linked to better outcomes because it means that chemotherapy is working. People with severe neutropenia have slightly better survival rates.
Neutropenia is most often caused by chemotherapy. However, other factors can sometimes use up neutrophils or prevent stem cells from making new blood cells. Other possible causes of neutropenia include:
Neutropenia does not often directly cause symptoms. In some cases, infections that the body cannot fight off cause fever, tiredness, or swelling.
One of the major problems with neutropenia is that it can cause infections. When there aren’t enough neutrophils in the body to fight off germs, infections can quickly become life-threatening. Immediately notify your health care team or go to the emergency room if you are undergoing lung cancer treatments and you notice signs of infection. Without treatment, an infection can be fatal. With prompt antibiotic treatment, if the infection happens during neutropenia, the chance of dying from infection is low.
Symptoms may include:
Many members of MyLungCancerTeam have reported dealing with infections. These conditions are sometimes severe and can lead to pain and discomfort.
“The pain that I was having was due to another infection in my lung,” wrote one member. Another said, “My husband keeps getting infections and has hardly eaten a thing in almost two months.”
A third member reported needing hospitalization. “I was in the ER on Monday with a massive sinus infection,” they said. “Immunotherapy focuses my immune system on fighting cancer while leaving my immune system suppressed in fighting bacteria, virus, and fungal infections.”
In some cases, low neutrophil levels may not need any treatment. However, treatment may be necessary when neutrophil levels drop very low or when a person with neutropenia also develops a fever or infection.
Neutropenia treatments often involve growth factors, also called granulocyte colony-stimulating factors. These drugs trigger the stem cells to start making more blood cells. Growth factor drugs include:
If you develop an infection as a result of neutropenia, it will need to be treated right away. Doctors prescribe drugs like antibiotics to help treat infections.
Many drugs can treat or prevent neutropenia and infections. They are given under the skin, occasionally intravenously, or with the on-skin injector that you take home. In early 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new medication, Cosela (trilaciclib), that works differently to help treat neutropenia. This drug helps prevent stem cells from becoming damaged by chemotherapy drugs, allowing them to continue making more of the body’s normal blood cells. Trilaciclib is approved for people with advanced SCLC.
If you already have low neutrophil levels, it can be risky to receive cancer treatments that can lead to a further drop. People with neutropenia often have to wait for their neutrophil levels to rise before undergoing treatments.
Several MyLungCancerTeam members have had to put treatments on hold because of low white blood cell counts. “Well, my day did not actually go as I had planned!” said one member. “Did my blood work for my chemo treatment on Monday, but apparently my white blood cell count is too low. So, they will have to do my blood work again Monday morning to see if it is up enough so I can have my chemo treatment.”
People with neutropenia have an increased risk of developing serious infections. Make sure to keep yourself safe:
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