If You Have or Had Cancer, Protect Yourself from a Real Viral Threat

It’s not Ebola that’s a viral threat to both cancer patients and survivors.


If you are battling cancer, or if you love someone who is battling cancer, you are likely among the minority of Americans who are not much worried about Ebola.

Fear of Ebola is understandable given its high fatality rate.  And yet the media frenzy has already led many Americans to believe that we are in the midst of an “Ebola epidemic.”  But this is simply not so.  You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who have contracted the virus on American soil.

But there is a virus which should worry people, and especially cancer patients

Every year at this time, as the leaves turn a beautiful range of red and the thermometer finally eases downward, a viral infection sweeps across the country, infecting millions, hospitalizing hundreds of thousands, and killing thousands.  And cancer patients are at particularly high risk.

I’m talking about the seasonal flu.  Yeah, that flu.  The one you hear about again and again at this time every year.  On the radio.  On banners at your local pharmacy.  On posters around your office.  All encouraging, pleading, begging you to “GET YOUR FLU SHOT!

But let’s be honest.  Many of us don’t get our flu shot every year.  We skip some years (often many).  You’re too busy.  You’ll get it later.  It hurts.  You never get the flu.  It’s just the flu.

But “just the flu” kills between 3,000 and 49,000 Americans each and every year.

  And more than 200,000 Americans annually require hospitalization in order to survive complications resulting from the flu.  And again, cancer patients are at particularly high risk.

Every year, between 5% and 20% of us comes down with the fever, the muscle aches, the congestion that result from a flu virus infection.

  And while cancer patients have no greater likelihood than those without cancer of getting the flu, given the ubiquity of the flu virus and its yearly return, clearly thousands and thousands of people actively battling cancer are at risk of catching the flu bug.

And that’s when the real danger for cancer patients begins…

Cancer patients are one of several groups known to be at greater risk of suffering flu-related complications, including serious and even life-threatening complications.  (Other high risk groups include seniors and young children; the 29 million American diabetics, including one in four Americans age 65 or older; those with respiratory conditions; and the millions with heart disease.)

While it varies annually, the flu vaccine tends to be quite effective at preventing you from getting the flu, and the vaccine is extremely safe. Thus the increased risk of flu-associated complications in cancer patients overwhelmingly outweighs any risk from the flu shot.

Now, many cancer patients in the midst of treatment worry that getting a flu shot will endanger them.

  But the cancer treatment itself often reduces a patient’s ability to fight viral infections, further elevating the risk of serious flu-related complications.  And again, the flu shot is safe.

The flu shotnot the nasal spray flu vaccine.

NOW HEAR THIS!  Cancer patients SHOULD NOT GET THE NASAL SPRAY FORM OF FLU VACCINE, as the nasal spray vaccine is made from live attenuated virus (meaning that live viruses with significantly reduced ability to sicken healthy individuals are used in the vaccine).  For cancer patients, whose immune systems are weakened, the live attenuated virus in the nasal vaccine may pose a safety risk.  Cancer patients should (only) get the flu shot (injection).

So if you are battling cancer, consult with your oncologist and (unless specifically recommended not do so), get that flu shot!

But wait…this recommendation is not only for cancer patients.  Cancer survivors are also known to be at greater risk of complications should they contract the flu.  So cancer survivors should also get an annual flu shot (again:  NOT THE NASAL SPRAY VACCINE).

And wait again…family members and close friends in frequent, close contact with cancer patients or cancer survivors should be vaccinated, not only to themselves avoid the misery of the flu, but to reduce the likelihood of flu spread to cancer patients and survivors.  (For most healthy family and friends, the nasal spray vaccine is an option.)

Seasonal flu time has arrived again, and it will likely peak in incidence in January or February.  So if you are a cancer patient or a cancer survivor (after first double-checking with your oncologist), or if you are frequently in close contact with a cancer patient or survivor, now’s the time to head over to your doctor’s office or to the neighborhood pharmacy  and roll up your sleeve.

It’s not Ebola.  It’s much more threatening.  And you can prevent it.

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