Take Charge

Flu Can Hit Cancer Patients Hardest

February 13, 2018


By Nancy Gay

The sounds of coughing, sniffling and wheezing make up the infamous melody of flu season. According to DoctorsReport.com, the Tampa Bay area ranks No. 6 in the nation for the most severe flu cases. That alone is nothing to sneeze at, but if you have cancer, you may want to pay attention.

Cancer patients are more vulnerable to complications from the flu due to their weakened immune systems. The flu can cause respiratory failure or secondary bacterial infections, which may lead to life-threatening pneumonia. Plus the flu tends to linger longer in cancer patients than those with a healthy immune system.

While local medical facilities are overflowing with flu cases, particularly among children, Moffitt Cancer Center is seeing more cancer patients with the flu.

Moffitt offers a test that looks for a wide variety of viruses, including the flu and certain bacteria, which may cause respiratory tract infections.

Dr. John Greene, Moffitt’s infectious disease expert, says patients should call their oncologist and primary care physician immediately if they think they, or someone in their family, may have the flu so they can have immediate access to the antiviral drug Tamiflu.

He says Tamiflu is safe for cancer patients and is ideally taken within 48 hours of the first symptoms. It can also be a preventative tool if a family member has the flu.

Rod Quilitz, supervisor of Clinical Pharmacy Support Services at Moffitt, said the traditional flu shot — made from the dead flu virus — is safe for most cancer patients. 

But cancer patients should not take the nasal spray, which is made from the weakened live virus, Quilitz said. Even a very weak live virus may cause illness in a person whose immune system is compromised from cancer and/or chemotherapy.

"Some cancer patients with weakened immune systems may not get the full benefit of flu vaccination," Quilitz said. He does not recommend the flu shot or nasal spray for patients receiving anti-B-cell antibodies such as rituximab or alemtuzumab or intensive chemotherapy such as induction or consolidation chemotherapy for acute leukemia. "Patients won’t be able to mount an immune response to the vaccine," Quilitz added.

Although the flu shot may not prevent all strains of the bug, it often reduces the severity of the illness.

The ultimate goal is to avoid the flu. Here are tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Avoid close contact
  • Stay home when you’re sick
  • Cover your mouth and nose
  • Clean your hands
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Get a flu shot

Moffitt experts also recommend that all caregivers and family members of cancer patients get the flu shot to ensure a wall of protective immunity is around the patient.