Cancer

Should I get the flu shot if have cancer?

close up of needle near upper arm

Question: Should I get the flu shot if I’m undergoing cancer treatment? 

Answer from an oncologist: In most cases, yes, says Sunnybrook medical oncologist Dr. Mark Doherty.

“This is actually one of the most common questions I get from my patients,” he said. “And the answer in most cases is yes. A flu shot can help protect you from a severe respiratory illness.”

The flu shot itself won’t make you sick, he said. (More on that here)

“The flu shot is made from killed virus so you won’t get sick from it,” Dr. Doherty said. There is a nasal spray vaccine which contains some live virus, which is not recommend for people with cancer.

It takes the vaccine about two weeks to work, so you could still come down with the flu if you contracted the virus before getting the vaccine. 

For a person with a compromised immune system, like a patient undergoing chemotherapy, the respiratory flu can be very serious, Dr. Doherty said.

“Many patients find themselves hospitalized. The flu can be a life-threatening situation for a person with cancer,” he said.

Practice good hand hygiene (that’s washing your hands with soap and water, or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer), and consider wearing a mask when you are around someone who may have been exposed to a cold or flu, as well as asking others to do so when visiting, particularly during the flu season. It’s also beneficial for your family members and caregivers to have the flu shot, as this can reduce the chance of them passing the virus on to you.

Totally isolating yourself from others because you are afraid of the flu isn’t the answer, Dr. Doherty said. 

“Get your flu shot and practice good hand-washing to help minimize those risks,” he said. “It’s important for you to maintain the connection with your friends and family so that you don’t become too isolated.”

There are some instances when a flu shot is not recommended. Be sure to speak to your doctor or healthcare team about getting the flu vaccine if you are undergoing cancer treatment.

About the author

Alexis Dobranowski

Alexis Dobranowski is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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