Should Breast Cancer Patients Get a Flu Shot?


Breast cancer patients with weakened immune systems need to be protected, especially during flu season.

It’s early November, and flu season is upon us. Medical professionals and public service announcements warn that it’s imperative to get vaccinated against Influenza. But is it wise for a woman with a compromised immune system to allow a virus, dead or alive, to be injected into her body? According to the CDC, when a live virus is introduced, the body immediately begins fighting. Antibodies surround the virus and attack. The host may experience typical flu-like symptoms of fever, fatigue, body aches and pains. And while the flu usually runs its course in a week to 10 days, it can last longer. Many don’t understand the potential danger associated with Influenza and forego the annual vaccination. They look at the flu lightly, as just a step above a nasty cold, but deaths have been reported from Influenza.

Cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, can leave a breast cancer patient with an extremely low white cell count. When the lymphocytes reach numbers below 20, doctors say the immune system is low or compromised. We’re advised to be careful in public and do whatever necessary to keep germs at bay.

An article by the American Cancer Society says, “People with cancer or a history of cancer are more likely to have serious problems if they get the flu.” The article also states, “People with cancer have to be careful about the type of flu vaccine they get. There are two main forms of flu vaccines:

- Live vaccines are made of weakened live virus and given as a nasal spray — people with cancer should NOT get the nasal spray vaccine.

- Inactivated vaccines are made of dead virus. They are given as a shot.

People with cancer should get the flu shots, NOT the nasal spray. Even a very weak live virus might cause illness in a person whose immune system is weak from cancer treatment.”

This information caused me to have a conversation with my oncologist about the flu shot. I wasn’t sure if I should get one. I’d heard a lot of conflicting information and wanted truth. According to internet articles, the flu vaccine was purported to contain trace elements of mercury or thimerosal. Used as a preservative, they can cause unwanted side effects such as gastrointestinal abnormalities and mild retardation in children according to some sources, though the FDA did not find a correlation between thimerosal and autism.

Should I take my chances or follow the promptings of my doctor? Weighing the information, I made my decision. I had to trust my doctor knowing he had my best interest at heart. His knowledge regarding the pros and cons of vaccinations was tantamount to mine.

Besides the vaccine, here are things you can do to stay well during this flu season:

- Wash your hands often.

- Do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth.

- Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough. Throw tissues away.

- Stay away from sick people.

- Stay away from children who spend time in group settings (schools, day care centers).

- Take care of yourself. Follow public health advice about outbreaks, like school closings and avoiding crowds.

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