As a cancer patient, there will be times when your body won’t be able to defend itself in the same manner that it would if you were healthy. Take the flu, for example. While experts aren’t sure if cancer patients currently undergoing treatment are more prone to getting the flu, one thing they do agree on is that cancer patients can experience more serious complications from it. Because of this, we highly encourage you to learn more about the flu and how you can protect yourself.
About Influenza (the Flu)
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. Most experts believe that flu viruses spread mainly by tiny droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze, or talk. In general, flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms are more intense. Additionally, the flu often comes on suddenly whereas a cold comes on slowly.
Some common symptoms associated with the flu include:
- Fever or feeling feverish/chills
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Sore throat
- Fatigue (tiredness)
Typically, the only vaccines recommended during cancer treatment is the flu vaccine and the new COVID-19 vaccine. This is because all other vaccines require an immune response in order to work— something that isn’t as likely to happen while undergoing most cancer treatments.
In the United States, flu season typically runs from October to May, peaking in January and February. Because it takes up to two weeks for the body to make antibodies to protect itself from the flu, the American Cancer Society advises getting the flu shot as soon as possible.
Other Ways to Protect Yourself from the Flu
When it comes to prevention, the first line of defense is to get the flu shot. However, there are other precautions you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones.
- Stay at home if you’re not feeling well.
- Wash your hands often with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds. Always be sure to do this before eating and before touching your face.
- Wear a mask in public places or as directed by your medical team.
- Eat nutritious foods that will boost your immune system. Make sure to eat enough protein to help prevent muscle wasting.
- Drink plenty of water as dehydration is a major reason that many cancer patients have to go to the emergency room. Vomiting or diarrhea may cause dehydration, leading to an imbalance in electrolytes. If the imbalance in electrolytes becomes severe, you may get confused or disoriented. Water also helps flush out toxins, which is helpful if you are being treated with chemotherapy.
- Exercise as often as possible. Even a little exercise, such as a short walk, can help boost your immune system.
- Get plenty of sleep. Don’t be embarrassed if you need a nap. Lack of sleep compromises your immune system, making it more likely that you might catch the flu or get a cold.
- Consider asking your family and co-workers to get a flu shot.
- Use hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes when in public places.
- Opt for contactless payment, such as a credit/debit card or smartphone, overusing cash.
- Order online whenever possible. This also includes your grocery shopping.
- At home, use a disinfectant spray or wipe frequently. Wipe down frequently-used surfaces like doorknobs, toilet handles, and the TV remote. Don’t forget to take extra precautions with your cell phone, computer keyboard, and mouse.
- Use telemedicine when it’s available. Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers does offer telemedicine services to provide lab and/or scan results.
- Avoid touching your hands, mouth, or eyes when you’re out in public.
- Work from home, if at all possible. Many cancer patients continue to work to keep their health insurance. Cancer patients receive protection through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). You are entitled to ask for reasonable accommodations. The Job Accommodation Network provides specific information for cancer patients and cancer survivors to request working from home.
Why Getting the Flu Shot is Important for Cancer Patients
Certain types of chemotherapy and radiation can weaken the immune system, putting you at increased risk for life-threatening infections like the flu, which can lead to serious complications such as:
- Sinus or ear infections
- Inflammation of the brain, heart, or other muscle tissues
- Sepsis (a life-threatening response to infection)
Getting the flu vaccine can help reduce the risk of you having to be hospitalized for flu-related complications. Should you find yourself experiencing symptoms like a fever, runny nose, sore throat, or coughing during your cancer treatment, we encourage you to contact your oncologist right away.
Types of Flu Vaccines
What you might not realize is that there are different types of flu shots— some of which are specific for certain age groups or more suitable based on personal health history. Patients over 65 or who have a serious egg allergy should talk to their oncologist, primary care physician, or pharmacist to ensure that they receive the most appropriate vaccine.
- Standard-Dose Quadrivalent Flu Vaccine: This is the most widely used flu vaccine that is designed to protect against four different flu viruses, including two influenza A viruses and two influenza B viruses. This vaccine can be used for babies as young as 6 months old and people up to 64 as long as they are not allergic to eggs.
- High-Dose Flu Vaccine: The high-dose vaccine is intended for people over 65. In the case of this vaccine, “high-dose” indicates that the vaccine has 4 times as many antigens as the standard dose.
- Adjuvanted Flu Vaccine: Another vaccine is available for people over 65, which has an added component to boost your immune response.
- Cell-Based Flu Vaccine: This version of the flu shot is especially for persons who are allergic to eggs. It can be given to people older than 4 years old.
- Recombinant Flu Vaccine: The recombinant vaccine is another option for people with serious egg allergies. It’s intended for people over 18 years old.
- Nasal Spray Flu Vaccine: The nasal spray vaccine is also called a live attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV). It’s intended for healthy people, ages 2 to 49. But it is not intended for use in many people, including people over 50, pregnant women, or immunocompromised persons. Talk to your oncologist before getting the nasal spray flu vaccine — either for yourself or other family members who live in the same household.
Always Talk to Your Doctor First
It’s safe for virtually every cancer patient to get their flu shot. However, it is always best to talk to your oncologist before doing so. If you are a patient at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers (RMCC), your oncologist and cancer care team are familiar with your particular diagnosis and treatment and will tell you which kind of flu shot is right for you. Also, to avoid having to make another appointment or visit another place, RMCC conveniently offers flu shots at our clinics. Just ask your care team for it.
Keep in mind that if you are receiving chemotherapy or have had a recent stem cell transplant you may not develop as strong protection against the flu as other people. So it’s important to talk to your oncologist to see if your household members should get a flu shot, too.
- How to Protect Yourself From the Flu During Cancer Treatment | Cancer.Net
- Different Types of Flu Vaccines | CDC
- What Cancer Patients, Survivors, and Caregivers Should Know About the Flu | Cancer and Flu | CDC
- Vaccinations and Flu Shots | Vaccinations During Cancer Treatment
- Key Facts About Influenza (Flu) | CDC