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Between cancer treatment and COVID-19, influenza might not top your list of health concerns right now. But getting the flu could be dangerous if you’re currently undergoing cancer therapy, or even if you’ve completed it.
In fact, the novel coronavirus pandemic makes getting a flu shot more important this year than ever before. Here’s why, and how to make it happen.
Cancer and Flu: A Dangerous Combination
Physicians can’t say for sure whether people who have, or have had, cancer face a higher risk of catching the flu. However, they do know for certain that patients and survivors have a higher risk of serious complications from the flu. You might be more likely to visit the hospital, or even die, if you get infected.
Why? Some types of cancer — including lymphomas, cancers of the tissues and organs involved in the production of infection-fighting white blood cells — directly affect your immune system. In other cases, treatments like chemotherapy suppress your ability to fight infectious diseases.
When Cancer Patients Should Get a Flu Shot
With rare exceptions — such as people with severe allergic reactions to vaccines — the CDC recommends everyone get vaccinated against the flu, every year.
The types of influenza virus in circulation vary each year, and scientists work to update the shots in preparation. That means the vaccine that protected you last year might not work against this year’s virus. Plus, your immunity from the vaccine fades over a year.
Flu season begins in the fall — and may coincide with an uptick in COVID-19 cases as people spend more time indoors. The CDC is suggesting people with cancer or a history of cancer get vaccinated by October at the latest. However, if you miss that timing, you can still benefit from protection even later. Flu season can last into April.
The Best Protection for Cancer Patients
Fortunately, there are many ways to protect yourself from the flu — and the best way is getting vaccinated. Injectable vaccines have earned approval for people with many health conditions, including cancer. They have a long history of safety even in these populations.
Cancer survivors and people with cancer should get a flu shot, rather than the nasal spray flu vaccine. If you’re age 65 or older, your body may have a weaker response to standard vaccines. Ask your doctor about:
Adjuvanted flu vaccine, which contains an additional ingredient called MF59 that intensifies the immune response
High-dose flu vaccine, which contains antigens — the part of the shot that causes your body to build immunity — that are four times as powerful
Also, ask your doctor if you should get a pneumococcal vaccine as well. People with diseases that affect their immune systems, including cancer, may be at an increased risk of pneumococcal pneumonia — one serious flu-related complication. This shot offers additional protection.
What to Do If You Have Flu Symptoms
Especially if you’re currently in treatment, talk with your doctor now about what to do if you develop flu-like symptoms. Signs of flu can overlap with those of COVID-19 or other serious infections, so it’s important to get clear direction from your medical team.
Typically, your doctor will want you to call immediately if you develop any of these signs:
Congestion or a stuffy nose
Fever — which counts as a medical emergency if you’re in chemotherapy
Head, muscle or body aches
Vomiting and diarrhea, though these are less common in adults
Medications called antivirals can stop flu viruses from replicating in your body. You might feel better, faster — and have a lower chance of developing serious complications — if you start taking them within 48 hours of developing symptoms.
Currently in Treatment? What You Need to Know
If you’re currently undergoing chemotherapy or radiation, it’s critical to talk with your doctor about getting a flu shot. Chances are, it will stand as your best chance for warding off flu.
In addition, talk to your doctor about neutropenia, a decrease in the number of white blood cells. He or she can advise you on when during your treatment protocol your numbers are likely to be the lowest — it’s usually within seven to 12 days of chemotherapy. That’s because, in addition to killing cancer cells, chemotherapy also destroys some of your healthy white blood cells.
During these times, you’ll want to be on even higher alert for signs of infection. In addition to flu-like symptoms, these include:
Increased urination, or burning and pain when you pee
Redness, soreness and swelling in any area, including near surgical wounds or treatment ports
Call your doctor and ask about getting a prescription for antivirals if you find out you’ve been within six feet of someone who has, or is suspected to have, the flu. And call for immediate medical help if you develop a fever. You might have sepsis, an extreme and life-threatening response to infection.
Other Ways to Stay Safe This Flu Season
While the flu shot is your best bet for warding off influenza, there’s a lot more you can do to prevent all types of infections — including flu and COVID-19. This includes:
Asking your caregivers and others around you to get flu shots, too
Not sharing personal and hygiene-related items, such as drink cups, food, utensils or toothbrushes
Staying away from people who are sick
Steering clear of social situations with people outside your household
Trying not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth
Washing your hands frequently, scrubbing them with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and rinsing well. Use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol when you can’t get to a sink.
Wearing a mask or cloth face covering when you do have to be around other people — and asking those around you to do so, too
Work with your health care team to stay on top of all your medical needs. Your doctor can help you ensure you have at least a 30-day supply of your medications. Don’t stop taking them, or make any other changes to your treatment protocol, without checking with your doctor first.
Though it is important to minimize unnecessary exposure to influenza or novel coronavirus, that doesn’t mean staying away from the doctor’s office. In some cases, you might be able to conduct your visit via telehealth — seeing a health care provider from the comfort of your own home. When you do have to go to the hospital or clinic, your treatment team can recommend the safest way to receive care.
Your Best Shot at Beating Flu
Flu vaccines are critical for everyone — and even more so for cancer survivors and patients. Plan to get your flu shot before the end of October if possible. You can get one from an AdventHealth primary care physician or at Centra Care Urgent Care locations.