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Food Safety During Cancer

When a patient’s immune system is weak from cancer and treatment, the body has fewer defenses against bacteria, parasites, or viruses that can be found in food. Germs in food and beverages can sometimes lead to an illness or infection of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. This type of sickness is called a foodborne illness or food poisoning.

Signs of Foodborne Illness

Common symptoms of foodborne illness are similar to stomach virus symptoms. They include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain or cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches and weakness

Most people start feeling sick within the first couple days after infection. However, foodborne illness symptoms can develop within a few hours or take up to a week or more before appearing. 

If foodborne illness is suspected:

  • Notify the care team. 
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Keep the suspected food and packaging materials if possible. The care team may want to examine it. 
  • Contact the local health department if the suspected food was eaten at a restaurant or other public place. This may help prevent other people from getting sick.
Pediatric cancer patient stirs a bowl of pancake batter.

Always wash hands before and after preparing food.

Ways to Prevent Foodborne Illness

Basic steps can help prevent illnesses from food. These are especially important if a patient’s immune system is weak. The care team can help families know other food safety steps to take.

Ways to prevent illness from foods include:

  • Handle food properly.
  • Avoid cross-contamination.
  • Cook food thoroughly.
  • Shop smart.
  • Take precautions when dining out.

Handle Food Properly

Taking care to handle food properly is key to reducing the chance of foodborne illness. Foodborne illness often starts when foods are not washed or stored correctly.

  • Wash hands with warm, soapy water.
    • Wash hands both before and after preparing food.
    • Always wash before eating.
  • Maintain proper temperature.
    • Keep hot foods warmer than 140° F and cold foods cooler than 40° F. Do not leave foods at room temperature longer than 1 hour.
    • Thaw meat, fish, or poultry in the microwave or refrigerator. Use a dish to catch drips.
    • Use defrosted foods right away, and do not refreeze them.
    • Put foods that can spoil (perishable) in the refrigerator within 2 hours of buying or preparing.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables well before peeling or cutting.
    • Rinse the leaves of leafy vegetables individually under running water.
    • Wash any dirt with a clean scrubber.
    • Wash packaged salads and other prepared produce marked as pre-washed.
  • Avoid vegetables that:
    • Appear slimy or moldy.
    • Have already been cut at the grocery store.
  • Other suggestions:
    • Wash tops of canned foods with soap and water before opening.
    • Avoid raw vegetable sprouts.
    • Never taste food with any utensil that will be put back into the food to stir or serve.
    • Throw away eggs with cracked shells.
    • Do not eat foods that look or smell strange.

Avoid Cross-Contamination

Bacteria from uncooked foods can easily transfer to other foods and surfaces. Simple ways to improve kitchen safety include:

  • Keep utensils, counters and cutting boards clean.
    • Use a clean knife to cut different foods.
    • Wash counters and cutting boards with hot, soapy water, or use a fresh solution made of 1 part bleach and 10 parts water.
    • Use moist disinfecting wipes made for use with food.
  • Keep foods separate.
    • Store raw meat sealed and away from other ready-to-eat food in the refrigerator.
    • Set foods apart on countertops.
    • Use different cutting boards for raw meats, fruit, and vegetables.
  • Use a clean plate for cooked meat when grilling

Cook Food Thoroughly

Cooking food to safe temperatures, especially meat and poultry, reduces the chance of food-related illness.

  • Use a meat thermometer. Put a meat thermometer into the middle of the thickest part of the food.
    • Cook meats to 165° F.
    • Cook poultry to 180° F.
  • Cook meat until it is no longer pink.
  • Make sure meat juices are clear.

When cooking in the microwave, prevent cold spots where bacteria can survive.

  • Rotate the dish during cooking.
  • Heat leftovers with a lid or vented plastic wrap.
  • Stir often.  

Shop Smart

Preventing foodborne illness begins at the grocery store.

  • Check “sell-by” and “use-by” dates. Avoid expired products.
  • Choose only fresh products. Look for:
    • Packaging dates on fresh meats, poultry, and seafood
    • Marks on fruits and vegetables
    • Sealed packaging on boxed foods
  • Foods to avoid:
    • Damaged, swollen, rusted, or dented cans
    • Deli foods
    • Unrefrigerated cream and custard-containing desserts and pastries.
    • Foods in self-serve or bulk containers
    • Soft serve yogurt and ice cream
    • Free food samples
    • Cracked or unrefrigerated eggs
  • Other shopping tips:
    • Pick up frozen and refrigerated foods just before checking out, especially during hot weather.
    • Refrigerate groceries immediately after returning from the store.  

Eat Out Safely

Eating out can present added challenges because less is known about the way food is stored and prepared. Families can take steps to help reduce risk of food-related illness in restaurants.

  • Check the health inspection rating for the restaurant. This is a good way to see how well the restaurant meets food safety rules and requirements.
  • Talk to the server. Explain any specific needs ahead of time.
    • Ask that food be prepared fresh.
    • Request single-serving packages of condiments.
    • Drink fruit juices only if pasteurized, which reduces bacteria.
    • Ask for meats to be cooked well-done.
  • Stay away from certain menu options.
    • Avoid self-serve or shared food such as salad bars and buffets.
    • Limit raw fruits and vegetables.
    • Pass on freshly squeezed juice.
  • Other dining tips:
    • Make sure utensils are set on a napkin, clean tablecloth or placemat, rather than right on the table. If they aren’t, ask for new ones.
    • Ask for a container for leftovers, and put the food in yourself.
    • Refrigerate leftovers as soon as possible.

Food Safety in the Hospital Room

  • Wash hands before and after eating.
  • Remove opened or perishable food after one hour, as bacteria can grow on the food.
  • Dispose of food in appropriate bins.
  • Do not store food in the child’s room. Use a designated refrigerator.
  • Write the child’s name and date on refrigerated food.

More Information

For additional information, visit the FDA's Food Safety page for people with cancer on the Food and Drug Administration’s website.

Learn more about how to Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill for Food Safety.


Reviewed: June 2018