Cancer can weaken the immune system, making illnesses like the flu more dangerous. That’s why it is important for those who are undergoing chemotherapy to get a flu shot — with a few precautions.
It’s not known whether people with cancer are more susceptible to the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But those who have or have had cancer are at higher risk for complications from the flu. People with certain types of cancer, including lymphoma and leukemia, are especially at risk for complications.
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The Flu Vaccine and Chemotherapy
The CDC recommends that people who have cancer or are in remission get the flu vaccine because it has an established safety record and is approved for use in those with cancer. However, talk to your oncologist or primary care doctor first; the flu vaccine relies on a functioning immune response, and people undergoing chemotherapy have weaker immune systems.
Timing is important when combining the flu vaccine and chemotherapy. The American Cancer Society (ACS) says that the flu shot can be administered two weeks before starting chemotherapy or between chemotherapy cycles. It can also be given six months after a stem cell or bone marrow transplant. However, be sure to consult your oncologist about what is best for you.
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Cancer and the Flu Vaccine
Flu vaccines made from live viruses, such as the nasal spray form, are not recommended for people with immune systems weakened by cancer treatment, according to the ACS. Flu shots, however, are made from dead viruses. If you have cancer, it’s best to get the flu shot instead of the nasal spray.
If you’re age 65 or older, you are at even higher risk for complications from cancer and the flu. Ask your doctor about getting a higher-dose flu vaccine.
Caregivers and loved ones who are around people with cancer should also get vaccinated to help prevent the spread of the flu. The flu shot is the safest option for caregivers; anyone who receives a live virus vaccine should not be near people with severely weakened immune systems, including those who recently had a stem cell or a bone marrow transplant, or are receiving high-dose chemotherapy.
The flu vaccine changes every year, as researchers anticipate which strains will be most virulent. That’s why the CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get the flu vaccine each year. The flu season lasts from October to May, with the peak in January and February. If possible, get the flu shot in early fall since it takes up to two weeks to become effective.
To prevent the flu, especially during chemo, everyone should take these precautions:
- Wear a mask over your nose and mouth when around others who may be sick
- Wash your hands with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer frequently
- When possible, avoid being around sick people
UPMC’s influenza guide can answer many of your other questions about the flu. For questions about preventing or handling the flu during or after cancer treatment, call your oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at 412-647-2811.
The UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 60 locations throughout western Pennsylvania and Ohio, with more than 200 oncologists. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment.