Why I Decided to Get the Flu Vaccine Every Year After Cancer

October 3, 2018
Bonnie Annis
Bonnie Annis

Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.

Viral germs pose a concerned health risk for those with a compromised immune system.

Falling leaves, pumpkins and cooler temperatures signal a change of seasons, and with the seasonal change comes a host of nasty germs. One of the nastiest of them all is the influenza virus. This germ spreads rapidly every year and can affect all ages. In the very young and in the aged, the influenza virus can change quickly from a viral infection to a more serious condition as the body of the person affected tries hard to fight the illness. But influenza, also known as the flu, is particularly dangerous for those with a weakened immune system, especially for people like me — people who’ve been diagnosed with cancer.

Influenza is a respiratory virus that’s spread from person to person. It is usually spread as tiny droplets of mucus float through the air as infected people cough, sneeze or talk. The little droplets are carried for up to six feet and can land in the mouths or noses of people nearby. Sometimes the germs find their way into the lungs. In addition to airborne transmission, the flu is also spread by contact with an infected surface or object. After touching such a surface, a person may touch his face and the germs are transferred causing the virus to spread.

The flu is extremely contagious and is most contagious within the first few days after a person contracts the germ. Many people don’t realize it’s possible to pass on the germ even before realizing they’re sick.

The flu is similar to a cold, but usually comes on very suddenly. The symptoms of influenza are more severe than a cold although they may start off in the same manner. Some common symptoms associated with the flu include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough or sore throat
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Body aches and pains
  • A general feeling of fatigue

The news is already reporting that this flu season is projected to be extremely challenging. Doctors have already begun advising patients to accept the newest flu vaccine. The flu vaccine is reformulated every year as the strains of the virus change.

Since being diagnosed with breast cancer, my body hasn’t been able to fight off infections as well as it used to in the past. I find that even a cold can last for weeks in my body, so as soon as my doctor asked if I wanted to take the flu vaccine, I immediately said yes. I remember years pre-cancer where I chose not to take the flu vaccine and ended up in the hospital with dangerous complications. I know I can’t afford to take that chance again now.

Some people are afraid that they can get the flu from the vaccine and that’s why they choose to forego accepting the vaccination, and while there are some rare instances of this being true, it is not a typical response.

There are two types of influenza vaccines. One is administered via nasal spray. This vaccine contains a live strain of the influenza virus. This inhalant is usually given to those under the age of 50. For more healthy individuals, when the live strain is introduced into the body via the nasal cavities, the body begins sending antibodies to seek out and fight the germ.

An injection is also available. The injection does not contain a live virus but introduces an inactive strain of influenza into the body. This inactive strain also causes the body to build antibodies to help protect the recipient and ward off the effects of the virus.

For those with a weakened immune system, such as those affected by breast cancer, it is extremely important to receive a vaccination against influenza. When the body has a compromised immune system, it is unable to effectively fight dangerous germs such as viruses. Even minor germs can become deadly for one with a weakened immunity. The nasal spray should not be given to one with a weakened immune system because it contains a live virus. A better choice would be the influenza injection.

The influenza vaccine is typically given in an upper extremity however, this can be challenging for someone affected by lymphedema. Lymphedema can occur after surgery for breast cancer. It most often occurs as a result of removing lymph nodes. This condition causes painful swelling in the affected arm(s). When one suffers from lymphedema, extreme care should be given for the affected extremity. No injections, or blood draws should ever occur in the arm affected by lymphedema.

As someone with lymphedema, I find myself having to remind the medical staff, when it’s time for my flu vaccination, that I need to receive the injection in the hip or thigh. This always causes raised eyebrows, but if I didn’t speak up, I’d suffer the consequences later — consequences that would be with me for the rest of my life.

Influenza can be a serious illness. In olden days, before the development of the flu vaccine, many people died after contracting the influenza germ. Today, we don’t often hear of influenza-related deaths, but they do still occur. This is why it is so important for the person with a compromised immune system to protect against the illness.

Most insurance companies cover the cost of an influenza vaccine and consider it a part of preventative health care due to the Affordable Care Act (when given by an in-network provider). If you are over the age of 65, Medicare Part B covers the cost of flu shots as well. Some employers offer free flu shots because they want to keep their employees healthy. There are also county health departments that may offer free flu shots to young children and the elderly. If none of these options are available to you, most pharmacies and some big box stores offer flu vaccines for a nominal fee.

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with breast cancer, especially if the immune system has been compromised by treatments like chemotherapy or radiation, it’s important to ask your doctor about a flu vaccine early in the season. In some instances, a doctor may not advise a patient to get the vaccine, but it’s always best to check and avoid a potential illness if you can. While some may view an annual vaccine as a minor annoyance, others may find it detrimental to their health should they forego the annual vaccine.

References:

https://www.curetoday.com/community/bonnie-annis/2016/11/should-breast-cancer-patients-get-a-flu-shot

https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/index.html

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