Cancer and the immune system
“Wash your hands.” It’s a simple task often overlooked – but even the little things can make a big difference in overall health. With the coronavirus, doctors say “wash your hands” to help in the fight against the spread of disease. It’s also an excellent way to help the immune system function at its optimum level.
Your immune system protects the body, like the linemen in football protect the quarterback. This complex network of cells, organs, and mesh together to defend the body from attack – bacteria, fungi, parasites, viruses, unhealthy cells, etc.
Everyone has cancer cells in their body, but for cancer to take hold, somewhere along the line, your immune system has to be compromised. This lack of defense allows for illness and infection – and the growth of tumors.
Basically, tumor growth stems from cells dividing out of control. This mass of cells – the tumor – can be either benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). The malignant cells do not function normally and begin to invade other tissue. The cells also may move to other parts of the body (metastasize).
When we say “immune system,” we’re talking an overarching system with two branches: the innate and the adaptive immune systems. Innate protects against common disease-causing microorganisms. In contrast, adaptive targets specific threats the body already has contacted.
Like an engine, the moving parts of the immune system must work together to reach maximum potential:
Bone marrow – blood cells are made in this spongy area inside of most bones. Most blood cells mature in the bone marrow and then move into the circulating blood. Other cells, not fully developed, are called stem cells, which grow into different types of cells, including blood cells.
Immunoglobulins – also known as antibodies, these proteins are made by plasma cells. Antibodies fight infection and bind to antigens (germs) to create an immune response.
Lymphatic system – these tissues and organs are responsible for the cells that fight diseases and infections. The lymphatic system includes bone marrow, lymph nodes, lymph vessels, spleen, thymus, and tonsils.
Lymphocytes – also called immune cells, these white blood cells are in the blood and lymphatic system and attack foreign invaders. T cells destroy damaged cells in the body and signal B cells to make antibodies. (If a germ gets into the body, B cells make more antibodies to help fight the bug.) Natural killer (NK) cells target cancer cells.
Skin and mucous membranes – these are the body’s first line of defense. The skin prevents most germs from entering the body. The mucous membranes that line many openings in the body make fluids – some acidic – to help destroy germs.
Now, since cancer develops from our cells, where it gets tricky is that the immune system does not know that it should attack the affected cells. (Sometimes, cancer cells “turn off” the immune response; the body’s defense does not recognize that it should attack these harmful cells.)
As the immune system becomes weaker – either by cancer itself or a conventional treatment like chemotherapy or radiation – the bone marrow is affected. The bone marrow produces fewer blood cells, which, in turn, allows the infection to set in. It’s a cascading effect throughout the immune system that ultimately gives cancer a foothold in the body.
So, when should you wash your hands? For starters:
- After blowing your nose or coughing
- After touching pets or other animals
- After using the bathroom
- Before and after visiting a sick person
- Before eating or touching food
- When your hands are dirty
Taking time to do the little things can go a long way toward keeping your immune system in fighting shape. As the coronavirus continues to dominate headlines, understand that flu season isn’t just a reason to wash your hands. You can get sick anytime! But especially during flu season, take the time – it takes 20 seconds to wash your hands – to care for you.