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Spleen Late Effects

Certain cancer treatments may damage or stop the function of the spleen, an important part of the body’s immune system.

Treatments That May Affect the Spleen

  • Surgical removal of the spleen (splenectomy)
  • High doses of radiation to the spleen
  • Chronic graft-versus-host disease as a result of a hematopoietic cell transplant (also known as bone marrow or stem cell transplant)

How the Spleen Functions

The spleen is located in the upper left part of the abdomen, just under the rib cage. It is about the size of a fist. The spleen produces white blood cells that make antibodies, specialized proteins that fight infections. The spleen also works as a filter to remove bacteria, viruses, and other foreign substances from the blood.

A graphic of the spleen, with the left view showing the outside and the right view showing a cross section. In the cross section, there are labels for the capsule, trabecula, vascular sinusoid, and white pulp.
This illustration shows a boy with organs of the lymphatic system labeled: Cervical nodes, lymph vessels, axillary nodes, inguinal nodes, spleen, thymus, and tonsils.

The spleen is part of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a network of nodes, glands, and vessels that transports white blood cells through the body to fight infection.

Conditions That May Occur

Serious and life-threatening infection is a risk if not treated immediately.

Signs of an infection include:

  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Aching muscles
  • Chills
  • Headaches
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain

Treating Infections

When a fever is higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit:

  • Seek immediate medical attention (even when taking antibiotics).
  • Tell the health care provider about your spleen condition.
  • Report any symptoms.

Blood count and blood culture tests can check for signs of serious infection. Treatment with a strong antibiotic by vein or muscle is recommended until the possibility of serious infection is excluded.

Preventing Infections

  1. Vaccines may reduce the chances of a serious infection. Recommended immunizations include:

    • Pneumococcal
    • Meningococcal
    • HIB (Haemophilus influenzae type B)

    Check with your primary care provider to ensure you get the appropriate vaccines. A yearly influenza (flu) vaccine is also recommended.

    It is important to remember that even with immunizations, people are still at risk for serious infections because vaccines are not 100 percent effective.

  2. Some providers may prescribe a daily antibiotic such as penicillin to reduce the chance of bacterial infection. Others may give a prescription for antibiotics to have on hand to take at the first sign of illness or when traveling to an area without adequate medical care.

  3. Survivors are also at increased risk for problems with other infections:

    • Malaria: Before traveling to areas where malaria is common, ask your medical provider for anti-malaria medications. Use insect repellants, netting, and protective clothing to prevent bites from mosquitos, which can spread the illness.
    • Ticks: Wear protective clothing and use insect repellent when going outdoors to protect against ticks. Tick bites can cause infections.
    • Animal/human bites: Get immediate medical attention if bitten by an animal or human.
  4. Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace to alert health care providers that you do not have healthy spleen function in case you are unable to communicate in a medical emergency. Carry a wallet card with guidelines for health care professionals.

Reviewed: June 2018