Cancer patients and the flu: What you should know

When it comes to contagious diseases like the flu, cancer patients
are among those most vulnerable to infection. This year’s flu season
is shaping up to be one of the worst in more than a decade, with the
Centers for Disease Control reporting “widespread” infection in 49 of
the 50 United States.

It’s important for cancer patients to protect themselves. So, we
talked with Roy Chemaly, M.D., to find out what cancer
patients should know.

What should cancer patients do if they think they have the
flu? What symptoms should they watch out for, and when should they
see a doctor?

The biggest concern is that cancer patients are at a higher risk of
developing serious complications if they do get the flu. So if you
have cancer and start experiencing symptoms like a fever, runny nose,
sore throat or coughing — especially if you have a compromised immune
system — see a doctor right away. There’s a good treatment for the
flu, but it has to be administered early, within 48 to 72 hours of the
onset of symptoms. If you suspect you might have the flu, you should
also be checked for other viruses.

Is it safe for cancer patients to take Tamiflu?

Yes. Anyone who tests positive for the flu can take it. Oseltamivir
(sold under the brand name Tamiflu) is a very good drug, and it should
work on the flu strain that’s circulating the most this year.

What should cancer patients know about the flu vaccine?

It’s safe for patients diagnosed with any type of cancer to get the
flu vaccine. But what we’ve found is that sometimes the vaccine
doesn’t work as well among cancer patients as it does in the healthy
population, particularly those on active treatment.

It’s also important for cancer patients to get the shot, as opposed
to the nasal mist, because the mist is a live-attenuated vaccine and
may actually cause the flu in immunocompromised patients and not be as
effective as the shot.

Is it safe for cancer patients to get the vaccine during treatment?

Yes. Every cancer patient should get the flu vaccine, but if you’re
on active chemotherapy or have a very weak immune system
(e.g., right after a stem cell transplant), your body may not respond
as well or the vaccine may not work at all.

That’s why it’s important to take it on a case-by-case basis and
talk to your doctor. It’s not that it’s ever dangerous to receive the
vaccine; it just may not protect you as well as we’d like. And we
don’t want to give you a false sense of security.

What should a cancer patient do if a friend or a relative has
the flu?

Stay away from them. It’s always better not to be exposed, but if
you think you may have been in very close contact (within 3 feet for
more than 10 minutes) with someone who has a confirmed case of the
flu, notify your doctor right away. You may be given Tamiflu as a
preventive measure.

How much does the flu shot actually protect you? And why
should patients get it, even though it won’t prevent all cases?

Even if the shot doesn’t prevent you from catching the flu, we’ve
found that it can reduce the severity of the infection if you’ve
already received the vaccine. That’s why we recommend it.

Aside from the flu vaccine, what else can patients do to
protect themselves?

Wear a mask and gloves, and wash your hands frequently throughout
the day. Avoid crowded areas, and stay away from sick people and
children ages 5 and younger.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by
calling 1-877-632-6789.