As flu season approaches, cancer patients should take steps to stay healthy

Flu vaccine
Flu season is upon us. That means another fall and winter with two serious viruses circulating among us. It also means it’s time for you to talk to your doctor about getting the flu vaccine.

If you’re a cancer patient, caregiver or family member, you should be fully vaccinated from COVID-19 by now. If you’re not, doctors and health care agencies recommend you get the injection because COVID-19 is still a threat to cancer patients and others who have compromised immune systems. And new subvariants of the coronavirus are highly contagious.

Now, flu season is almost upon us. That means another year of facing a fall and winter with two serious viruses circulating among us. It also means it’s time for you to talk to your doctor about getting the flu vaccine. While the flu has become somewhat of an afterthought in recent years because of COVID-19, it shouldn’t be dismissed and may be a dangerous diagnosis for cancer patients.

“The flu can cause pneumonia, respiratory failure, encephalitis and other serious complications including death,” says Suji Mathew, MD, Infectious Disease Physician and Chief of Medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), Atlanta. “It’s not a disease that should be taken lightly.”

In this article, we’ll address what cancer patients need to know as flu season approaches, including:

If you’ve put off cancer screening or treatment because of the pandemic, call us or chat online with a member of our team to schedule an appointment.

Why should cancer patients get vaccinated?

Getting vaccinated is the most important step cancer patients, caregivers and their families can take to protect themselves and others from the flu.

Research has shown that cancer patients and survivors are at higher risk of getting infected and experiencing more severe symptoms from COVID-19 and the flu. It’s important that patients and those around them get an updated flu vaccine every year and to stay up to date on all other inoculations, including the COVID-19 vaccine.

“When the flu vaccine becomes available, you should get it. It’s a good preventative tool to use,” Dr. Mathew says. “It’s an important first step for caregivers and family members of cancer patients to take to prevent getting the infection.”

When should patients get vaccinated?

Long-term cancer survivors and patients who aren’t in active treatment should get the flu vaccine as soon as they can. There are some caveats, however. Patients who have been recently diagnosed, are in treatment or are about to start treatment should talk to their doctor about the best time to get their shot. Some cancer treatments, especially chemotherapy, may damage or suppress the immune system, making vaccines less effective. Patients diagnosed with blood cancers, such as leukemia or lymphoma, may also not benefit fully from the vaccine, but should still get the vaccine unless they have had serious side effects to it in the past.

Dr. Mathew recommends that patients who haven’t started treatment get the vaccine at least two weeks before treatment. Patients who are on treatment cycles should talk to their doctor about when in the cycle they may get vaccinated.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends that cancer patients and others with compromised immune systems get a COVID-19 booster shot if they:

  • Are in active treatment, especially for a blood cancer
  • Had a stem cell transplant in the last two years
  • Are taking drugs that may suppress the immune system

While the CDC suggests that it’s safe to get both vaccines together, Dr. Mathew says spacing the shots apart, if possible, may have some benefit.

“If you get them at the same time and get some side effects, you may not know which vaccine caused those side effects,” she says. “I recommend spacing them out if you can.”

What’s the difference in the viruses?

On the surface, it may seem that the viruses that cause COVID-19 and the flu are the same. For instance, both viruses:

  • Are transmitted through respiratory droplets
  • May cause severe symptoms in older people and those with pre-existing conditions, such as cancer
  • May cause similar symptoms in the respiratory system, including:
    • Fever
    • Cough
    • Fatigue
    • Body aches
    • Runny or stuffy nose

But the two viruses are not the same and, in fact, differ in ways that often underscore the seriousness of the coronavirus. For instance:

  • The COVID-19 virus is much more contagious and spreads more rapidly than most common flu viruses.
  • Flu patients usually experience symptoms within four days of infection. People infected with COVID-19 may not experience symptoms for up to five or more days, allowing them to spread the virus without knowing it.
  • COVID-19 symptoms and complications are usually much more severe and are more likely to require hospitalization, especially in at-risk patients.

The vaccine for the flu will not protect patients from COVID-19, and vice versa. 

A vast majority of new COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations are among those who aren’t vaccinated. And while so-called breakthrough cases have occurred among the vaccinated, those who have gotten the shot usually experience less severe symptoms.

“The purpose of the flu vaccine is the same as the COVID vaccine,” Dr. Mathew says. “The goal is to prevent serious complications and death and reduce hospitalizations. So even if someone tests positive for COVID or the flu, but they have relatively minor symptoms, then the vaccine has done its job.”

What to expect this flu season

For evidence of how effective masking, hand hygiene and social distancing are in preventing the spread of infection, consider the decline in cases and deaths in flu seasons that overlapped with the pandemic. According to Scientific American, estimated flu deaths fell dramatically in the 2020-21 season, compared to previous years:

  • 2020-2021: 700 deaths
  • 2019-2020: 22,000 deaths
  • 2018-2019: 34,000 deaths

Dr. Mathew and others attribute that sudden drop in cases and deaths during the pandemic to steps Americans have taken to reduce COVID-19 exposure. Flu deaths surged in 2021-22 as masking requirements and other restrictions were lifted, according to the CDC. Preliminary numbers estimated deaths during the 2021-22 season at more than 5,000, still lower than most previous years.

A surge in flu cases in Australia have some American health care agencies fearing the worst this season. Australia, which is moving from winter to spring, has had its worst flu season in five years and has seen sharp increases in cases among children and teenagers.

As flu season approaches and with COVID-19 subvariants still lingering in many states, it’s important for Americans to fight off pandemic fatigue and not let their guard down to stem the tide of new cases of both viruses, Dr. Mathew says.

“The general preventative guidelines followed for COVID-19 helped with controlling the spread of influenza,” Dr. Mathew says. “The 2022-2023 season may also show a similar trend if people continue to be masked and follow good hand hygiene.”

How can cancer patients reduce their risk?

Other than getting vaccinated, cancer patients, caregivers and their family members can take these steps to reduce their risk of exposure to COVID-19 and the flu:

  • Wear a mask and encourage your family members and caregivers to wear them.
  • Avoid large crowds, when possible, and keep space between yourself and others.
  • Wash your hands frequently or use hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid people who are sick
  • If you get sick, seek medical help depending on the severity of your symptoms

Dr. Mathew stresses that information, guidelines and recommendations may change as the virus continues to mutate and as research reveals more information about how it spreads. It’s important, she says, to get the latest information on the virus and flu season from reliable sources.

“Try to avoid propaganda websites,” she says. “Their information often is not based on data, but on emotions or anecdotes. That’s where it gets very dangerous.”

If you’ve put off cancer screening or treatment because of the pandemic, call us or chat online with a member of our team to schedule an appointment.