What Every Cancer Patient Should Know About Flu Season

Cancer increases your risk of developing flu-related complications, but taking these steps can help you prevent getting this virus.

By Rachael Bieschkie

Text Size

In the U.S., flu season peaks from December through February, but runs through the entire fall and winter. While most cases are mild, with recovery in less than two weeks without medical care necessary, people with weakened immune systems, including cancer patients, are at an increased risk of developing flu-related complications that may result in hospitalization or death.

This applies not only to cancer patients, but also certain cancer survivors, including those who have had lymphoma or leukemia, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is why it’s so important for cancer patients and survivors to take extra precautions to stay healthy during flu season, with the first step of getting a seasonal flu shot.

“There’s no better prevention for influenza than vaccination at this time,” says Mashiul Chowdhury, MD, chief of infectious diseases at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) Eastern Regional Medical Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

It’s important for not only cancer patients and survivors to get vaccinated, but also their family members and caregivers. “We campaign every year so that people get their vaccines, including people who work in the hospital setting,” Dr. Chowdhury says. “If caregivers and family members don’t get the flu, the patient will be less likely to get it.” If you’re a cancer patient and you’re not sure whether your health care providers have received a flu shot, feel free to ask, as the flu vaccine may not be mandatory.

4 Things to Look for at Your Doctor’s Office

If you visit hospitals or other health care settings frequently, you should seek out facilities that regard flu safety, prevention and control as a top priority. Susan Flores, RN, who works in occupational health and infection control at CTCA® in Tulsa, Oklahoma, explained that some of the most important ways hospitals help prevent the spread of influenza is by keeping frequently touched areas clean, offering the flu vaccine to patients and staff and posting signs asking visitors not to visit if they’re ill. When choosing a health care facility, she says, you can keep an eye out for:

  1. Cleanliness of the facility
  2. Availability of hand hygiene products, such as alcohol-based foam, and soap and water, throughout the facility
  3. Availability of facial tissues and procedure masks
  4. Annual questionnaires given to patients on receiving the flu vaccine

Washing your hands with soap and water often — and scrubbing for at least 20 seconds — remains one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of flu and other infections. If you’re feeling ill, you should stay home and avoid close contact with anyone who has a compromised immune system. If that’s not possible, anyone who is having flu symptoms should wear a mask if they will be near a cancer patient, Dr. Chowdhury says.

One final route of prevention is to avoid crowds during flu season, if possible, and be aware of flu transmission in your community by checking your state and local health departments for flu activity. If activity is high in your area, stay home or try to avoid crowded areas.

“This is very important information,” says Dr. Chowdhury. “People need to be very pragmatic. You can’t isolate yourself from everything, but if it’s possible, avoid crowded areas or areas where you see someone is sick.” If an influenza outbreak occurs in a health care setting such as a nursing home, patients may also receive antiviral medications to help prevent the flu, Dr. Chowdhury notes.

If you’re a cancer patient or survivor and you’re experiencing flu-like symptoms, you should talk to your physician immediately for testing and possible treatment. “Influenza can be very serious in immunocompromised patients,” Dr. Chowdhury says, emphasizing once again that “we all need to make sure we get vaccinated.”