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.