The human immune system is an incredible thing. Composed of proteins and cells, the immune system is a very complicated network that protects the body from infection and disease.
Unfortunately, the immune system can be weakened by lifestyle choices, cancer treatment, genetics and other factors. When it’s not functioning at its best, it can become overwhelmed by germs and diseases. If you have a family history of cancer or other serious illnesses, it’s especially important to keep your immune system strong and healthy. Here’s what you should know about the connection between a healthy immune system and preventing cancer.
Two Immune System Parts
Every immune system is composed of two main parts:
1. Innate immunity
2. Acquired immunity
Innate immunity is what you are born with. It’s the protection your immune system provides you from birth. The innate immune system has the ability to respond to threats very quickly. Mechanisms involved with the innate immune system include:
• The skin, which forms a barrier around the body
• Stomach acid, which kills bacteria as they enter
• Inner lung and gut linings, which trap unwanted bacteria in mucus
• Urine flow, which flushes bad bacteria from the urethra and bladder
• Hairs that remove bacteria form the lungs
• White blood cells that hunt and kill bacteria
• Helpful bacteria that prevent unwanted bacteria from taking over the bowel
There are certain things that can weaken innate immunity, include skin punctures and wounds, antacid medications that can disrupt the delicate flora in the digestive system, and poor lifestyle choices that compromise various body systems.
Unlike innate immunity, you aren’t born with acquired immunity. Instead, you develop this protection after exposure to a variety of illnesses and diseases. Essentially, your body gains acquired immunity once it learns how to recognize and conquer various diseases. Acquired immunity is why someone who’s had chicken pox as a child probably won’t develop it again. Vaccines work by using acquired immunity to help the body recognize certain illnesses or diseases so it can recognize and fight them off if it ever encounters them in the future.
The Link Between Immune Function and Cancer
Some immune system cells detect cancer cells and recognize that they are abnormal. Then, they work to kill the cancer cells. The outcome of this battle depends on a variety of factors, including the strength of the immune system and the strength and aggressiveness of the cancer cells. In some cases, the immune system may win, while in others, it may not be strong enough to destroy the cancer cells completely.
In cases where the immune system can’t fight the cancer off, the patient usually becomes symptomatic as the cancer grows. It is important to then seek treatment, though it’s important to note that cancer treatment can further weaken the immune system as it fights cancer cells.
How Cancer Treatments Affect Immunity
Breast cancer treatments and other cancer treatments frequently work by weakening cancer cells through radiotherapy, chemotherapy, high-dose steroids or targeted cancer drugs. Unfortunately, these treatments also weaken the immune system temporarily by reducing the number of white blood cells.
There are some cancer treatments that work directly with the immune system, rather than against it, to fight cancer. These include various types of immunotherapy that work to boost the immune system and help the body fight the cancer cells.
Things You Should and Shouldn’t Do To Strengthen Your Immune System
There are many things you should and shouldn’t do to strengthen your immune system. Most of them are obvious but some may come as a surprise.
• Do: Consume enough calories for your height and weight. The body needs sufficient calories to support a strong immune system.
• Don’t: Smoke or use tobacco products. These increase the chances of poor treatment outcomes for people with cancer.
• Do: Eat a balanced diet. Try to include a variety of fruit and vegetable colors in your diet to get the optimal type and amount of nutrients to strengthen your immunity.
• Don’t: Live an inactive life. Try to get regular physical activity for at least 15 minutes each day.
• Do: Get enough sleep. Do your best to get at least seven hours of sleep each night.
While doing these things won’t guarantee that you won’t get cancer, they will help you strengthen your immune system so you have a better chance of avoiding and/or overcoming diseases. Remember that if you are having any symptoms it’s important to find a cancer treatment center near you.
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