World Cancer Day (Feb. 4) is the perfect time to talk about why food safety is so important for the nearly 15 million Americans who are cancer survivors and the 1.7 million people in the United States projected to be diagnosed with cancer this year. Treatment of cancer typically involves chemotherapy, radiation, and/or medications to help fight the disease. A side effect of these therapies is that they may weaken patients’ immune systems. And, since almost half of cancer survivors are 70 or older, they also have the natural weakening of the immune system that comes with age. A properly functioning immune system works to clear infections and other foreign agents from the body. But weakened immune systems make individuals more susceptible to infections, including those that can be brought on by disease-causing bacteria and other pathogens in food, and make those individuals more likely to have longer and more serious illnesses. So, it’s essential that cancer patients and survivors make a lifelong commitment to minimize their risk of foodborne illness, also called food poisoning. Doing that calls for proper care when choosing, storing, and preparing foods. Foods to avoid If you are at greater risk of foodborne illness, you should not eat:

  • Raw or undercooked meat or poultry
  • Raw fish, partially cooked seafood (such as shrimp and crab), and refrigerated smoked seafood
  • Raw shellfish (including oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops) and their juices
  • Unpasteurized (raw) milk and products made with raw milk such as yogurt and cheese
  • Soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk, such as Feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined, and Mexican-style cheeses such as Queso Fresco, Panela, Asadero, and Queso Blanco
  • Raw or undercooked eggs or foods containing raw or undercooked eggs, including certain homemade salad dressings (such as Caesar salad dressing), homemade cookie dough and cake batters, and homemade eggnog (most pre-made foods from grocery stores, such as Caesar dressing, pre-made cookie dough, or packaged eggnog are made with pasteurized eggs)
  • Unwashed fresh vegetables, including lettuce/salads
  • Unpasteurized fruit or vegetable juices (these juices will carry a warning label)
  • Hot dogs, luncheon meats (cold cuts), fermented and dry sausage, and other deli-style meats, poultry products, and smoked fish — unless they are reheated until steaming hot
  • Salads (without added preservatives) prepared on site in a deli-type establishment, such as ham salad, chicken salad, or seafood salad
  • Unpasteurized, refrigerated pâtés or meat spreads
  • Raw sprouts (alfalfa, bean, or any other sprout)

The four steps to food safety:

  1. CLEAN: Wash hands and surfaces often.
  2. SEPARATE: Separate raw meats from other foods.
  3. COOK: Cook to the right temperatures.
  4. CHILL: Refrigerate foods promptly.

For more information, see Food Safety for People with Cancer or call USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHOTLINE (1-888-674-6854) and ask for a free copy.