Immunocompromised?: Proteins, Iron-Rich Foods, and Blood Cell Counts

I was first diagnosed with cancer at the end of October and received my Triple Negative Breast Cancer news in early November. My mind swirled with questions about TNBC treatments and what six months of chemotherapy and 12 months of immunotherapy would do to my body. I’m now 10 sessions into my first 12-week course of treatments (taxol, carboplatin, and ketruda), and the term immunocompromised still feels squishy. When I ask my doctors and nurses, I get differing responses about my status as a cancer patient and options for how to behave responsibly in the world given the immunosuppression that comes with my treatments.

What I’ve learned is that my white blood cell count is what factors into my immunocompromised status. Each morning before I am admitted to get my treatments at the hospital, I have blood drawn to test for a range of stats that enable my team to clear me for chemo and immunotherapy. The important numbers now for me are my white blood cell count and overall protein levels. Starting Week 8, they became concerning, so my doctors added in weekly growth factor injections to boost my white blood cell counts after each chemo session in this first course of treatment.

White blood cells

The lower the white blood cell count you have, the more you have to worry about infection and the  immunocompromised you are considered. Time to eat more protein and inject growth factors to keep you out of the hospital.

Red Blood Cells

Red blood cell levels are also important to track during cancer treatments, as low levels indicate anemia and the need to each iron-rich foods and in more sever cases receive blood infusions or take additional medications.

Getting Iron-Rich Foods

Since my teens, I’ve had a keen interest in nutrition and have subsequently had a lifetime of consciously making food choices that positively impact my body. During my pregnancy with my son 11 years ago, I first began researching iron-rich foods, but anemia (low iron levels) was not a significant issue at the time, so my research was minimal. Since starting chemo, I’ve been very tuned into adjusting my diet to smaller, more frequent meals, high in iron and protein to avoid additional medications or hospitalization during my cancer treatments. 

What I’ve learned is that getting your iron through food sources is best if your budget and time allows and that animal sources more more easily absorbed. You can also eat or take Vitamin C with your iron-rich foods to increase your absorption. I’ve created a best of iron-rich foods table below. Women ages 18-50 need 18 mg of iron daily and 50 grams of protein daily.

Animal Heme-iron sources
(easier to absorb)

3.5 oz oysters: 7-8 mg Iron (44%); 6-11 grams protein (depending on variety and preparation)

3.5 oz sardines – 2 mg Iron (11%); 20 grams protein

3.5 oz lamb – 2 mg Iron (11%); 21 grams protein

3.5 oz tuna – 1.5-2 mg Iron (11%); 28 grams protein

3.5 oz lean beef cooked : 1.5 mg Iron (11%); 23 grams protein

Beef Liver is also high in iron – 3 oz has 5 mg of Iron (28%)… I just don’t eat it.

1 egg: 1 mg Iron (6%); 6 grams protein

3.5 oz chicken or turkey: 1 mg Iron (6%); 15-29 grams protein

Clams are controversial when it comes to Iron – research calls into question how much iron is actually available when eaten by humans. Conflicting sources list this as 3-28 mg of iron (13-100%); 26 grams protein

Plant NonhEME-Iron Sources
(More Difficult to absorb)

40 grams (1 bowl) breakfast cereal: 14-18 mg Iron (80-100%); 3-10 grams protein

Protein powder (plant-based): 6 mg Iron (35%); 22 grams protein

Chick peas, white beans: 5-6 mg Iron (28-35%); 10-19 grams protein 

3.5 oz Lentils: 3 mg Iron (17%); 9 grams protein

1 oz Dark Chocolate: 2-6 mg Iron (11-35%); 2 grams protein

1 TBSP Blackstrap Molasses: 3.5 mg Iron (11-35%); 0 grams protein

1 cup raw kale: 2 mg Iron (11%); 2.5 grams protein

1 oz cashews: 2 mg Iron (11%); 5 grams protein

with grace


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