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Deb Gordon

Deborah D. Gordon has spent her career trying to level the playing field for healthcare consumers. She is co-founder of Umbra Health Advocacy, a marketplace for patient advocacy services, and co-director of the Alliance of Professional Health Advocates, the premiere membership organization for independent advocates. She is the author of "The Health Care Consumer's Manifesto: How to Get the Most for Your Money," based on consumer research she conducted as a senior fellow in the Harvard Kennedy School's Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government. Deb previously spent more than two decades in healthcare leadership roles, including chief marketing officer for a Massachusetts health plan and CEO of a health technology company. Deb is an Aspen Institute Health Innovators Fellow, an Eisenhower Fellow and a Boston Business Journal 40-under-40 honoree. Her contributions have appeared in JAMA Network Open, the Harvard Business Review blog, USA Today, RealClear Politics, The Hill and Managed Care Magazine. She earned a BA in bioethics from Brown University and an MBA with distinction from Harvard Business School.

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How Superbugs Put Cancer Patients at Risk

Antimicrobial resistance may make cancer treatment less effective

Created With Support

Medically reviewed by Dr. Tom Sandora

How Superbugs Put Cancer Patients at Risk Infographic: click image to open PDF

What is antimicrobial resistance?

Microbes are tiny germs that cause all kinds of infections. They include:

  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Parasites
  • Fungi

Microbes evolve and sometimes the drugs that kill microbes stop working. This is called antimicrobial resistance or AMR.

When germs become resistant to more than one drug, they’re called superbugs.

Antibiotic resistance = one type of AMR

If antibiotics are taken too often or incorrectly, bacteria can become resistant to them.

Antibiotic resistance is dangerous because infections that used to be easy to treat can become more serious — even deadly — without antibiotics

Antimicrobial resistance is more dangerous for people with cancer

It’s especially easy for people with cancer to get infections because cancer treatments can make it harder to fight infection.

Many cancer treatments keep the immune system from working well, so antibiotics are an important part of making cancer treatments safe. If antibiotics stop working, some cancer treatments could be too dangerous to prescribe.

People with cancer are 3x more likely to die from an infection than people without cancer.

Antimicrobial drugs, such as antibiotics, antiviral medications and antifungal medications, are key to preventing and treating infections. But more than 1/4 of infections in people with cancer were found to be resistant to standard antibiotics.

88% of cancer patients who died from an infection they got in the hospital were infected with a superbug.

Cancer patients infected with superbugs were more likely to die than cancer patients with other types of infections.

95% of cancer specialists surveyed in 2020 said they’re worried about superbugs.

Infections are most common in people with these types of cancer:

  • Prostate cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Kaposi’s sarcoma (cancer found in the skin or membranes of the digestive tract)
  • Liver cancer
  • Leukemia

People with basal cell neoplasms, a type of skin cancer, had the highest risk of death from infections.

Approximately half of the deaths in people with blood-related and solid tumors are related to an infection.

Symptoms of infection

A person with cancer is most at risk for infection when their white blood cell count is low. Typically, white blood cells are lowest between one and two weeks after finishing a dose of chemotherapy.

Watch out for these common symptoms of infection:

  • Fever
  • Chills and sweats
  • New or different cough
  • Sore throat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Congestion
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Stiff neck
  • Pain when you pee
  • Peeing more often
  • Vaginal discharge or irritation
  • Redness, soreness or swelling anywhere, especially where you’ve had surgery or a port
  • Pain

If you have any of these symptoms, call your healthcare provider right away.

This resource was created with support from Pfizer Inc.

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