The flu vaccine and cancer treatment

4 minute read time.

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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  • I’ve had my flu jab, I had it other week and was told to have it after my immune system crashed last month. I realised afterwards that I was very vulnerable and I feel vulnerable having cancer and not recovering from surgery as well as I expected,so having the flu Jab gives me some control back as I know I have some protection now. So please don’t be worried and have your jab, it only takes seconds to have.

  • I didn't have one last year, what with scans, dentist and starting chemo I just forgot. I was at my GP about something else the other week, and he fetched some and did it for me. Didn't know I could get it free, thought that was only prescriptions!! Although work would have paid for it anyway.

    I did laugh, hubby had his last month, and I had a whole weekend of "oww, my arm hurts". This was the first one I ever had, and couldn't work out what his problem was. Men!!

  • Such a lot of conflicting advice about the flu jab.

    Both my CNS and consultant have said a very firm ‘no’ to having the flu jab while on treatment.

    On asking the reason the answer was that having chemotherapy would cause the flu jab to be ineffective.

    As a cancer patient the last thing I need is conflicting information from sources which should all be saying the same thing.

  • FormerMember


    There are signs up all through our hospital, I'm sure on the oncology ward itself. My daughter is in the midst of chemo and I'm sure I mentioned about her having the jab to her cancer nurse a few weeks ago. She just seemed unsure...

    My daughter is neutropenic - yet during a consultation today, there was again no mention of the benefits of a flu jab.



  • FormerMember

    My husband finishes his chemotherapy treatment next Monday following 4 months of treatment . He has been told to leave it for about two weeks then get the flu jab - we were also told that I should have it the same time .