Food Safety for People with Cancer

By J’aime Moehlman, Triage Cancer Program Coordinator

Why is Food Safety Important?

With the holiday season fast approaching, we wanted to share some tips and guidelines on food safety, brought to you by the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A common side effect of cancer treatment is a weakened immune system. To avoid foodborne illness caused by bacteria and other pathogens, be extremely careful when handling, preparing, and eating foods.

The Food Safety website describes the causes and symptoms of foodborne illness.

Handling and Preparing Food Safely

When you’re eating at home, remember that foods most likely to contain harmful bacteria or viruses fall into two categories:

  • Uncooked fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Animal products, specifically:
  • Unpasteurized (raw) milk
  • Raw or undercooked eggs
  • Raw meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish
  • Luncheon meats and deli salads

Always consult your doctor if you have questions about making food choices, and if you’re not sure of food in your refrigerator… When in doubt, throw it out!

It’s important to follow the Four Basic Steps to Food Safety:

Triage Cancer Blog Four Basic Steps to Food Safety

Because foodborne pathogens can be sneaky, and appear in food that looks completely fine—be sure that your food is always prepared and handled safely by following the Four Basic Steps to Food Safety!

  1. Clean—Wash your hands and surfaces often. Wash hands for at least 20 seconds in warm soapy water and wash or sanitize all surfaces that contact food.
  2. Separate—Don’t cross-contaminate different foods
  3. Cook—Always cook your food to safe temperatures, using a food thermometer to measure internal temperatures

Triage Cancer Blog Food Safety Tempatures

  1. Chill—Promptly refrigerate foods

Refrigerate or freeze meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, and other perishables within 2 hours of cooking or purchasing. Refrigerate within 1 hour if the temperature outside is above 90°F.

Shopping for Groceries

It is also important to become a better shopper when trying to avoid unsafe food. Carefully read food labels, check the “sell by” dates, put raw packaged meat into a plastic bag before you place it in the shopping cart, purchase only pasteurized milk and juices, purchase eggs in the shell from the refrigerated section, buy produce that is not bruised or damaged, and make sure canned goods are free of dents, cracks, or bulging. Another important tip is to pick up your perishable groceries last when shopping and then head directly home from the grocery store.

Smart Choices When Dining in Restaurants

Going out to dinner with friends and family can be a fun and rewarding experience. To avoid foodborne illness, be sure to ask questions and observe your food when it is served. Let your waiter or waitress know that you don’t want to eat foods containing raw meat, poultry, fish, and eggs, as well as sprouts. If you follow some basic rules for ordering food and make smart menu choices, you will greatly reduce your chances of getting a foodborne illness. When you order, ask if the food contains uncooked ingredients, how the foods have been cooked and to what temperature, and if you want to bring your leftovers home—refrigerate as soon as possible and always within 2 hours.

Foodborne Illness Action Plan

If you suspect you may have a foodborne illness, follow these guidelines:

  1. Contact your health care team, or seek medical treatment
  2. Often those undergoing treatment or who have cancer are at risk for severe infection
    • contact your physician if you have symptoms.
  3. Preserve the food
    • Label a portion of the suspected food “DANGER” and freeze it.
  4. Save all the packaging materials of suspected food or drink items
  5. Call your local health department if you believe you became ill from food at a restaurant


Food Safety for People with Cancer—A need to know guide for those who have been diagnosed with cancer. U.S. Department of Agriculture & the Food and Drug Administration. 2011.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2015.

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