Anti-science, anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists have been known to claim that flu shots cause cancer — and even that they were designed to. Nothing is further from the truth, but are flu shots safe for people with cancer? What should you know?
Can cancer patients safely get a flu shot?
Yes. The CDC advises everyone older than six months old to get a flu shot, and yes, this does include those who currently have cancer and people who have survived cancer. While people who have cancer might not have a higher risk of catching the flu, they do have a higher risk of suffering complications like pneumonia from influenza. Some other vulnerable groups that have a higher risk of developing complications include younger children, those who are pregnant, the elderly, and heart disease patients, diabetes patients, lung disease patients, and patients of other such medical complications.
Your doctor will typically advise you to avoid vaccines while you are receiving chemotherapy or radiation therapy, as vaccines depend on an immune system response you might not have during this time to be effective. Some vaccines contain live but weakened viruses. This could lead to an infection in people with a weak immune system, such as cancer patients. The flu shot is, however, a notable exception — because you have a high risk of catching the flu as well as a increased likelihood of serious complications.
What is the best time to get a flu shot if you have cancer?
This is something to discuss with your treating medical team in detail. In general, however:
- You should get vaccinated against the flu about two weeks before starting chemo or you should get it between your chemo cycles.
- You can safely receive a flu shot about six months after you have gotten a stem cell transplant or a bone marrow transplant.
- It is ideal to receive your flu shot at the beginning of the flu season, which is October in most countries. Remember that the circulating strains of influenza viruses are a bit different every year, so you need to get a new flu shot each flu season.
Flu shots work by causing your body to start making antibodies. These antibodies will help your body arm itself against influenza viruses. However, it is good to know that it can take a while for this process to complete — about two weeks or a bit less — and this is the reason it is important to get the flu shot as soon as possible.
Besides getting a flu shot yourself, you can advise your closest friends and family to get one too. This way, your risk of catching the flu will go down even more and your loved ones won't need to worry about staying away from you as you go through your treatment.
Which flu shot should cancer patients get?
While the nasal spray flu vaccine isn’t safe for cancer patients because it contains live but weakened viruses, the injectable vaccine (the flu shot) contains inactivated viruses and is suitable for you. Additionally, ask your physician if you require a pneumococcal vaccine which protects you against getting pneumonia, a serious potential flu complication.
What other things can I do to reduce my odds of getting the flu?
People who have cancer should:
- Consider wearing a surgical mask in areas of the hospital with a lot of sick people
- Wash their hands frequently and never touch their face with unwashed hands — this is one of the primary ways to become infected with viruses
- Stay away from big crowds while the influenza season is in full swing
- Tell their family and friends to also get a flu shot and avoid contact if they are ill
If you are a friend or relative of someone with cancer, you should follow these same tips — practice excellent hand hygiene, never touch your face with unwashed hands, and get yourself a flu shot. The more people get a flu shot, the more protected the most vulnerable people become. You should also avoid your loved one with cancer if there is even a hint you've come down with a "bug". Just keeping your distance is not enough, as droplets contain flu viruses can travel up to six feet.
Cancer and flu: I got the flu shot, but what if I still get influenza?
This is an important question, because although the flu shot reduces your risk of catching influenza, the odds don't go down to zero. You should contact your physician as soon as you notice flu-like symptoms. This is not just because the flu can be very serious, but also because symptoms similar to those of the flu can actually be a signal of a severe infection other than influenza.
To provide the best care, your doctor needs to know what is going on with you. Lab tests can determine if you have the flu, and your doctor can get you started on prescription antivirals that are most effective if you take them within the first 48 of the appearance of your symptoms.
Also contact your physician right away and also ask them if you can get antiviral drugs if you don't have flu symptoms (yet), but:
- You’ve been within six feet of a person you know or think has the flu
- You have gotten cancer treatment like radiation therapy or chemotherapy inside the last month
- You have a lymphatic or blood type of cancer