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Flu Shots and Breast Cancer Treatment Side Effects

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Updated December 08, 2009

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: Flu Shots and Breast Cancer Treatment Side Effects

I had chemo and radiation treatments for breast cancer, and I still have neutropenia. Can I get a seasonal flu shot? Is it safe for me to get the H1N1 swine flu vaccine?

-- Heather Carr, About.com Forum Member

Answer:

Recovering from cancer treatments is hard enough, but avoiding the flu should be easy if you take the right steps. Knowing your health situation is important to making the decision about flu vaccines. Be sure to take simple precautions to guard against flu germs, in any case.

Know Your Health Situation
People who are in treatment or recovering from breast cancer are coping with many side effects. Chemotherapy can affect your blood counts, causing your red and white cell counts to drop - but this can be treated, making it a temporary condition. Radiation for breast cancer rarely causes a drop in neutraphils or platelets, but if you're having radiation and chemo at the same time, chemo is more likely to be the culprit affecting your immune system.

When your immune system is low due to neutropenia, you are more at risk for infections. Your body will have a harder time fighting back against germs and bacteria - including the flu virus. Be sure to ask your doctor how you should prepare for flu season, so you can defend your health as well as possible.

Don't Spray Your Flu Away
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends that anyone with a weakened immune system avoid the nasal spray flu vaccine. The nasal spray form of flu vaccine contains weakened live flu viruses. If you're worried about swine flu, you need to know that the 2009 H1N1 nasal spray flu vaccine also has live flu viruses in it, so you should not have the FluMist if your immune system is low.

Talk With Your Doctor - And Maybe Get A Flu Shot
You won't be getting the FluMist nasal spray vaccine for seasonal or swine flu, but do protect yourself with some easy hygiene habits.

The American Cancer Society recommends that you discuss your health with your oncologist first and ask if the flu vaccine is compatible with your cancer treatment. For example, if you are taking daily oral Cytoxan, which is very suppressive of T cell function, the flu vaccination is not likely to help you. But if you're having one of the taxanes – Taxol, Docetaxel – your immune system should respond well to the flu shot.

So after talking with your doctor, and if it is okay for you, get your flu shots as injections. Flu shots given as an injection contain killed flu viruses, which your system can tolerate better than the live virus that is in the FluMist spray. You will need another injection for 2009 H1N1 swine flu that contains inactivated flu viruses.

Got Flu Symptoms?
Treatments for breast cancer can cause flu-like symptoms. You might have fever and chills, a sore throat, head and body aches, fatigue, and nasal drainage or a stopped-up nose. If you feel this way anytime during treatment or recovery from cancer, call your doctor and get checked out. Influenza can be confused with side effects of cancer treatment, but you should get help no matter what's causing these symptoms. See an expert and get the right treatment so you can recover in good time.

Sources:

Cancer and the Flu. FLU.gov. Accessed: December 7, 2009.

About the Flu. FLU.gov. Accessed: December 7, 2009.

Should Cancer Patients Get a Flu Shot? American Cancer Society. Last Revised: 09/03/2009.

Will My Blood Count Be Affected? American Cancer Society. Last Revised: 12/23/2008.

  1. About.com
  2. Health
  3. Breast Cancer
  4. Life During Treatment
  5. Side Effects & Blood Counts
  6. Flu Shot - During Breast Cancer Treatment

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