Cancer and the flu: Patients – and survivors – at heightened risk

January 21, 2013 | by

With  the flu sweeping the nation, even healthy Americans are finding themselves on edge – jumpy at the slightest sniff from a co-worker and almost horrified at lackadaisical cough and sneeze etiquette. Cancer patients and survivors should be even jumpier. They’re more likely to develop serious, even fatal, flu complications.

flu virus

The influenza virus poses special risks to cancer patients and survivors.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sums up the case for diligence in a special fact sheet titled “Cancer, the Flu and You: What Cancer Patients, Survivors, and Caregivers Should Know About the Flu.” The preface doesn’t mince words: “If you have cancer now or have had cancer in the past, you are at higher risk for complications from the seasonal flu or influenza, including hospitalization and death.”

The fact sheet becomes progressively more detailed. It offers the basic question and answer:

"Are cancer patients and survivors more likely to get the flu than others?

We do not know if cancer patients and survivors are at greater risk for infection with flu. However, we do know that cancer patients and survivors are at higher risk for complications from flu, including hospitalization and death."

And then proceeds to provide specific information for those currently undergoing chemotherapy:

"What should cancer patients and survivors do if they think they may have the flu?

If you have received cancer treatment such as chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy within the last month, or have a blood or lymphatic form of cancer, call your doctor immediately if you get flu symptoms. Learn how to prevent infections while you're receiving chemotherapy."

As for the question about whether cancer patients, survivors and caregivers should get a flu shot, you get one guess as to the answer.

That's no guarantee of an infection-free flu season, of course. Even those who dutifully and wisely received the vaccination must remain vigilant.

An accompanying report “What You Should Know for the 2012-2013 Influenza Season,” points out that this year’s vaccine reduces the risk of having to seek medical treatment for flu by about 60 percent.

So stay away from those poor slobs who don't bother to cough properly. Or, better yet, send them a step-by-step guide.

If that fails, there's always "Learn to Cough or Sneeze With Elmo."