Should I Eat That? Food Safety Tips for During Treatment

A weakened immune system may leave you vulnerable to foodborne illness, but these safety measures can help

By Rachael Bieschke

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Eating food contaminated with harmful bacteria, parasites or viruses can cause serious illness even in those who are healthy, but for people with cancer the importance of avoiding foodborne illness is magnified.

“Patients living with cancer, especially those who are getting treatments such as radiation, chemotherapy, and stem cell therapy, can be susceptible to foodborne illnesses due to their often-weakened immune systems,” says Steven Newman, culinary department manager at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), Philadelphia.

“In this condition, patients may not have the same capacity to fight things off such as infection and disease. Common symptoms from foodborne illnesses, such as vomiting, could pose a very serious threat to patients.”

Which Foods Are Riskiest?

Certain foods are more likely to contain dangerous microorganisms than others, namely undercooked animal products and seafood as well as raw unwashed fruits and vegetables. It’s important to use extra caution with the following high-risk foods:

  • Undercooked meat or poultry
  • Undercooked or raw seafood, including raw sushi, raw oysters and ceviche
  • Smoked fish and shellfish
  • Unwashed fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Undercooked or raw eggs (and foods that may contain them, such as Caesar salad dressing, raw cookie dough or homemade eggnog)
  • Unpasteurized beverages, including raw milk or apple cider or other juices
  • Unpasteurized (raw) cheeses, such as feta, brie and queso fresco
  • Raw sprouts
  • Ready-to-eat foods that may have been contaminated such as salad/salad bars, buffets
  • Unheated hot dogs and deli meats

Know Safe Cooking Temperatures

To avoid foodborne illness, it’s essential to understand the proper cooking temperatures for meat and seafood, and use a meat thermometer to confirm that they are cooked through. Avoid taking chances with undercooked eggs or meat, or consuming foods that haven’t been pasteurized. Cold deli meats and hot dogs are risky because Listeria bacteria grows at refrigeration temperatures (40 degrees F or below).

Heating these items until steaming (165 degrees F) will kill Listeria, making the meats safe to eat from a food safety standpoint. For other foods, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommend cooking to the following minimum internal temperatures:

  • Beef, Pork, Veal, Lamb, Steaks, Roasts & Chops: 145 ºF with 3-minute rest time
  • Fish: 145 ºF
  • Beef, Pork, Veal, Lamb, Ground: 160 ºF
  • Egg Dishes: 160 ºF
  • Turkey, Chicken & Duck, Whole, Pieces & Ground: 165 ºF

Four Steps to Reduce Your Risk

Beyond cooking to proper temperatures, here are more helpful tips to minimize your riskof foodborne illness:

1. Wash Your Hands (Before and After Preparing Food)

When asked about his top food safety tips for cancer patients, Newman says:

Hands down (no pun intended), it’s washing your hands and the hands of those around you. It’s said that the mosquito is the number 1 killer in the world because of its ability to spread disease and virus from one being to the next. Well, if this is the case, then your hands are in that infamous second slot.

Your hands come into contact with incalculable amounts of germs and bacteria throughout the day from everyday activities. It is very basic, but so very important to properly wash your hands a multitude of times a day to minimize the spread of those germs to yourself and others. In food preparation and service, it is the most important rule that needs to be followed to ensure the safety of those who are consuming.

2. Wash Fruits and Vegetables

Use warm water and, ideally, add some citrus juice or vinegar to your rinse water, Newman recommends.

“Rinsing your vegetables and fruits can rid them of impurities that could cause a plethora of foodborne illnesses … Raw vegetables can  be a  part of a patient-living-with-cancer’s diet but they should be washed and prepared properly.”

3. Avoid Cross Contamination

Raw meats and their juices, seafood and eggs can transfer bacteria from one surface to another in your kitchen. Keep these high-risk foods in their own section of your shopping cart, grocery bags and refrigerator, and be sure to sanitize surfaces that come into contact with them before placing other foods there. Ideally, get two cutting boards — one for raw meats and seafood and another for produce and other ready-to-eat foods like bread and cooked meats.

“The rule of thumb,” says Newman, “is use separate cutting boards, trays and containers for the two. If that’s not an option, be sure to sanitize your cutting surfaces between preparing produce and meat.”

Also, be sure to refrigerate foods promptly to reduce the risk of bacterial growth — within two hours of cooking or purchasing (and one hour if it’s over 90 degrees F outside). Keep your refrigerator set at 40 degrees F or below, and your freezer at 0 degrees F or below, for optimal food safety.

4. Choose Reputable Sources

For the most part, you can enjoy the same types of food you always have, even while undergoing cancer treatment, as long as you take the proper precautions and prepare them safely. Newman says there aren’t many foods he would tell you to absolutely steer clear of, but he does advise seeking out reputable sources for your food — “especially the meats, seafood, poultry and dairy products” — and planning out your meals for the week so you’re able to pick and choose accordingly.

For example, he says foods from a salad bar at a small roadside diner could be iffy, as they may not have many procedures in place to reduce potential liabilities like foodborne illness. The same goes for potluck meals. “You may be rolling the dice! It may be best to steer clear and bring your own food,” he says.

Beyond that, as long as you’re choosing food from reputable sources and taking care to handle it safely, wash it thoroughly and cook it to the proper temperatures, “empower yourself to feel like you have control of what goes into your body, knowing that it is safe and nutritious, and knowing that it is doing what it is designed to do — heal.”