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Living with Cancer: What You Need to Know About the 2010-11 Flu Season

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Cancer related image Photo: Getty Images

If you have cancer now or have had it in the past, you are at higher risk for complications from the seasonal flu or the 2009 H1N1 flu, including hospitalization or death. Here is important information you should know as you head into the new flu season.

Q. For the first time, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending flu vaccination for all Americans over the age of 6 months. Why the change?

A. Flu vaccination was already recommended for 85 percent of the U.S. population, but the CDC expanded it to almost everyone based on evidence that the vaccine can benefit people of all ages. CDC spokesperson Tom Skinner says health officials are concerned that the 2009 H1N1 virus could continue circulating during this flu season— along with two new seasonal flu viruses— and a substantial proportion of young adults might remain susceptible to infection. The new vaccine, available now, will protect against all three main viruses expected this flu season.

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

A. According to the CDC, it is not certain that cancer patients and survivors are more prone to contracting infection with either the 2009 H1N1 or seasonal flu. Rather, cancer patients and survivors are at a higher risk for complications from all influenza viruses. That is why it is important for you to get your vaccination now so that you have time to build immunity before the flu season kicks into high gear.

Q. What are the symptoms of the 2009 H1N1 and seasonal flu?

A. Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea. People may be infected with the flu, including the 2009 H1N1, and have respiratory symptoms without a fever.

Q. What should I do if I come into close contact with someone who has the flu?

A. 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 have been within six feet of someone known or suspected to have the flu. Your doctor may give you antiviral drugs to help prevent the flu. If you have cancer and have not received treatment within the last month, or you have had cancer in the past but are cancer-free now, and you have had close contact with someone known or suspected to have the flu, call your doctor and ask if you should receive antiviral drugs.

Q. What are antiviral drugs?
A. Antiviral drugs are used to treat and prevent infection with both seasonal and 2009 H1N1 flu viruses. Antiviral drugs are prescription medicines (pills, liquid, or an inhaled powder) that stop flu viruses from reproducing in your body. If you get sick, antiviral drugs can make your illness milder and make you feel better faster. They may also prevent serious flu complications.

Q. As a cancer patient or cancer survivor, what should I do if I suspect I have the flu?

A. 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.
All cancer patients and survivors should follow the steps below.

  1. Contact your health care provider and follow his or her instructions.
  2. Stay home and away from others as much as possible to keep from making them sick. This means you should avoid public activities, including work, school, travel, shopping, social events, and public gatherings. You should stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone (without the use of fever-reducing medicine), except to get medical care or other necessities.
  3. If you need to go to the doctor’s office, emergency room, or any other health care facility, cover your mouth and nose with a facemask, if available and tolerable, or cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Let the facility’s staff know you are there because you think you may have the flu.

For more information on the 2010-11 flu season, visit www.cdc.gov/flu/

Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues, she writes a blog, Nonsmoking Nation, which follows global tobacco news and events.

Add a Comment4 Comments

Thank you for your comment. I am so sorry to hear about your breast cancer. Too many of our sisters-- and a few of our brothers-- are living with this awful illness and it's high time we find a cure. Although most people certainly don't want to get influenza, a cold or other type of infection, I think most of us are not aware just how serious the flu can be. Unless you or someone very close to you battles cancer or another illness that weakens the immune system, either through the illness itself or the treatment, we can be ignorant or forget how life threatening something so common like a cold or flu are to cancer warriors. Thank you for sharing this reminder so we can all be more considerate and take a few simple steps to protect ourselves, our families and our neighbors. Thanks again for your comment.

September 25, 2010 - 7:54am

Lynette, I found your article to very informative and people certainly need to be reminded about what to do very frequently. I have recurrent breast cancer in my lungs, and when i had to be hsopitialized my Doctor informed the staff that anyone with an infection of any kind, or anyone who had recently received any kind of vaccination, could not be put in a room with me. As I am sure that you know this precaution is taken due to
being treateds with Chemotherapy wipes out your immune system and leaves you highly susceptible to any and all kinds of illnesses. Sincerely,Lioness111

September 25, 2010 - 6:15am

Thank you for your comment Pat. I think a lot of times people don't realize just how many people are out there that could be gravely harmed by a simple virus. And many people don't understand just how easy it is to spread something like a cold or flu. We should all wash our hands more often and be cautious about touching our faces prior to washing our hands. I agree with you. if you are sick, you should stay home as much as possible and not expose others. Also, more people should consider getting vaccinated. That is the single most important public effort to prevent an influenza epidemic or pandemic.

September 16, 2010 - 8:10am
Expert HERWriter Guide Blogger

Lynette - Thanks so much for this informative, helpful information about the flu and the complications that can affect those of us with cancer. I have sometimes found it difficult to avoid adults and children who go out in public with the flu during the flu season, and wish people would be more considerate about the impact they could have on others. It's good to know what we can do to protect ourselves when they're not.

September 7, 2010 - 5:26pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.