Health experts agree that cancer patients and cancer survivors along with their family members and caregivers should have the flu shot every year, and it’s safe for most people undergoing cancer treatment.
The flu shot, or influenza vaccine, is the best way to protect yourself against the flu, especially if you have a weakened immune system from cancer or cancer treatment. When your immune system is suppressed, it can’t fight off the influenza virus. This puts you at greater risk for serious flu complications such as pneumonia, which requires hospitalization, intravenous antibiotics and could postpone cancer treatments like chemotherapy. Even if the flu shot doesn’t prevent you from getting sick, it can make your illness milder.
Encourage relatives, friends and caregivers to get vaccinated in order to reduce your chances of getting the flu from them, especially if you are undergoing chemotherapy.
Speak to your doctor or healthcare provider first
Before getting the flu shot, talk to your doctor or healthcare provider.
People with cancer need to be careful about the type of flu vaccine you get. It’s safe to get the injected vaccine (flu shot) because it uses a dead virus and does not cause flu symptoms. You should not get the nasal spray because it is made from a live vaccine that could cause a serious illness.
Do not get the flu shot if you:
- are allergic to any of the vaccine components
- have a platelet count below 20,000
- have experienced a serious allergic reaction from a previous flu shot
- developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome within 6 weeks of a previous flu shot
You can also ask your doctor if you should get a pneumococcal shot. Many people who are at increased risk for flu are also at increased risk for pneumococcal infections such as pneumonia.
When to get your flu shot during treatment
Chemotherapy: If you are currently receiving chemotherapy, the best time to get the flu vaccine is 48 hours before or after treatment when your blood counts are still near the normal range. If you have finished chemotherapy, have the flu shot 3 to 4 weeks after chemotherapy is over. If you have not started treatment yet, you can get the flu shot before you begin.
Radiation therapy: If you are having radiation therapy, you may have your flu shot at any time during your treatment. Flu shots will not affect your treatments.
Bone marrow or stem cell transplant: If you had a bone marrow or stem cell transplant more than 4 months ago, you should have your flu shot as soon as you can. If your transplant was less than 4 months ago, ask your doctor.
It takes between 2 to 4 weeks for the vaccine to take effect so get it as soon as possible. In Canada, flu season can start as early as October and run as late as May. The peak time is a 10 to 16 week period that usually starts in December.
Be prepared in case you do get the flu
Speak to your doctor or health practitioner so you know what to do if you get sick. Talk about:
- what symptoms should prompt a call to the doctor
- whether you should get an anti-viral drug if you get the flu
- how to get a prescription for an anti-viral drug quickly if you need it
- making sure your vaccines are up to date
Keep a written record of:
- the type of cancer you have or had
- cancer treatments you’ve had and when
- the name and contact information for all your doctors
- a complete list of medicines you are taking
What to do if you are in contact with someone who has the flu
Influenza is highly contagious. If you have been within 6 feet of someone who has the flu or may have it and you have had chemotherapy or radiation within the last month or have a blood or lymph cancer such as leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma, call your doctor right away.
Your doctor may give you a prescription for anti-viral drugs to help keep you from getting the flu – especially if you have not gotten a flu shot.
- Canadian Cancer Society
- American Cancer Society
- Centres for Disease Control and Prevention
- Nova Scotia Health Authority
- Public Health Agency of Canada
- Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre