The flu vaccine and cancer treatment

It’s that time of year again. Nights are drawing in and the temperatures are dropping. Winter is certainly coming. And along with winter comes the usual array of coughs and sneezes, including flu. Getting an annual flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself from the flu. But what about if you have cancer? Is it safe? Why is the flu vaccine so important? In this blog, our expert information development nurse Richard answers these questions.

Flu is very infectious. It’s spread mainly by coughs and sneezing. The infection is caused by a virus that can cause unpleasant illness in children and severe illness among at-risk groups. This includes older people, pregnant women and those with an underlying medical health condition, such as cancer.

We all know that having flu isn’t very nice. The symptoms often come on quickly and people usually feel very unwell. Healthy people normally recover within a week or so. But if you are in an at-risk group, flu can lead to very serious complications, such as pneumonia.

The vaccine is the best way to prevent the virus. It is given by injection under the skin. The vaccine doesn't stop all flu viruses so it is not a 100% guarantee that you will be flu-free all winter. But if you do get flu after having the vaccination it's likely to be milder and shorter-lived than it would otherwise have been.

Who should have the flu vaccine?
It is recommended that people at risk of flu (or its complications) have the vaccine. This includes:

  • anyone aged 65 or over
  • pregnant women
  • people with an underlying health condition, such as cancer, heart disease, liver damage or a lung condition
  • people with a weakened immune system because of disease or treatment, such as chemotherapy or long-term steroids.

It is also recommended for adults who care for, or live with, someone who is in one of these at-risk groups.

Having the flu vaccine
The flu injection is available free on the NHS to:

  • adults over the age of 18 at risk of flu (including everyone aged 65 and over)
  • pregnant women
  • children aged six months to two years at risk of flu.

You can get the vaccine at your GP surgery or from a local pharmacy that offers the service. If you are not in one of the at-risk-groups, you may have to pay for the vaccine.

Is it safe for people with cancer?
The vaccine is safe for most people who have cancer. It does not contain any live flu virus, so you won’t get flu from the vaccine.

Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse may suggest that you have the vaccine. This is because having cancer or its treatment can weaken your immune system. This can increase your risk of getting an infection, including the flu. If you get flu while your immune system is weakened, there is a risk that you can become very ill.

If you are having cancer treatment that is likely to affect your immune system, it is very important to protect yourself from flu. If you are worried, talk to your doctor or nurse – ask them if it would be a good idea to have the vaccine.

It’s best to have the vaccine before you start a treatment that is going to weaken your immune system. Ideally you should have the flu jab at least two weeks before starting the treatment. This isn’t always possible, in which case the vaccine can be given at any time.

Your immune system won’t be back to full strength for a few months after cancer treatment, so it’s important to get the vaccine even if you are no longer having any treatment. Your cancer doctor or nurse can give you more information.

Are there any side effects?
Your arm may be a little sore after the injection. And you may have a mild fever and aching muscles for a couple of days. But anything more than that is very rare.

You shouldn’t have a flu vaccine if you have had an allergic reaction to it before.

Where can I get further information?
Your cancer doctor, nurse specialist and GP can all give you further info about the flu jab. You can also read about it on the NHS website.

Getting more information support
If you would like more information support, you can call our cancer information specialist between 9am and 8pm, Monday to Friday on 0808 808 00 00. There is also lots of support available on the Online Community, especially if you are feeling down or in need of a friendly ear.

To see what else Macmillan's cancer information team has been blogging about, please visit our blog home page! You can subscribe to receive our blogs by email or RSS too.

We're with you every step of the way

The Macmillan team is here to help. Our cancer support specialists can answer your questions, offer support, or simply listen if you need a chat. Call us free on 0808 808 00 00.

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Keep in touch Follow Macmillan’s cancer information team on Twitter @mac_cancerinfo

  • <p>Hi and welcome to the online community</p> <p>You might not have realised but you&#39;ve added a comment to a blog that&#39;s over 2 years old. I see that you&#39;ve joined the <a href="/cancer_types/kidney-cancer/">kidney cancer group</a>&nbsp;so presume that this is the type of cancer that your dad has. If this is right could I suggest that you pop over to that group and post your question there.</p> <p>Clicking on the link I&#39;ve created will take you straight there and&nbsp;<span>you can then&nbsp;</span><span>post your question about the nasal flu spray after selecting &#39;start a discussion&#39;.</span></p> <p><span>When you have a minute it&nbsp;would be really useful if could pop something about your dad&#39;s journey so far into&nbsp;<a href="/help_section/w/using-the-community/413/how-do-i-update-my-profile">your profile</a>&nbsp;as it helps others when answering or looking for someone with a similar diagnosis. It also means that you don&#39;t have to keep repeating yourself. To do this click on your username and then select &#39;Edit Profile&#39;. You can amend it at any time and if you&#39;re not sure&nbsp;what to write&nbsp;you can take a look at mine by clicking on my username.</span></p> <p><span>x</span></p>
  • <p>HI,</p> <p></p> <p>My Dad is due to start on Panzopanib soon (exact time we do not yet know, he has had base line scan and bloods), and my daughter is due to have her flu nasal spay at school in the next 6 weeks. I have read he should not be close to her for 2 weeks following...has anybody had any experience of this, as my Dad collects my daughter from school 2 days per week, I will obviously have to make differed arrangements if that is the case...any advice thank you.&nbsp;</p>
  • <p>I had chemotherapy as part of my breast cancer treatment three years ago.</p> <p>I have had free NHS flu jabs at my surgery for the past 2 years but when I tried to book an appointment this year (Sept 2018) they claimed that the computer said I was not eligible for a free flu jab.</p> <p>Although the list (above) of people who should have free jabs includes people who have had chemotherapy is that only for people who are currently having chemo ?&nbsp; Or is it anyone who has ever had chemo regardless of how long ago it was ?</p>
  • <p>Hi everyone, thank you for your comments. If you are unsure whether you, or the people close to you, should have a flu jab, the best people to ask for more information are your cancer doctor or specialist nurse. Everyone&rsquo;s situation will be different, depending on treatments you are having and where you are in your treatment schedule, and they should be able to give you advice. If you are given different answers from different professionals, check with them again and ask them to explain their advice. Hope this helps, Elissia</p>

  • <p>As with Namod, my oncologist has said I should have had the jab before starting Chemo, but I was &quot;missed&quot; and not to have it now. However, the jab doesn&#39;t suit everyone. My wife has been having it every year, but the last two years it has actually given her flue type symptoms. Last year she was really ill for 3-4 weeks after the jab, so she&#39;s not having any more. According to one of are health care team, around 3 years the swine flue inoculation was added to the vaccine, and this ties in with her getting &quot;flue&quot; after having the jab.&nbsp;<br />Interestingly, my youngest son, who is still at primary school, was due to have the vaccine a few months ago, but we were advised for him not to as we (me and the wife) are high risk (I believe children get a nasal spray which does works in a different way).</p>