How to Protect Cancer Patients from Flu

by Saul Weingart, MD, PhD

Flu has arrived in the northeast with a vengeance. The City of Boston declared the flu epidemic a public health emergency. Perhaps someone you know has been sick with the flu.

Influenza can be serious for anyone, but for a cancer patient, the stakes are higher.

Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or bone marrow transplants have very fragile immune systems, and flu can cause serious harm or even death. Because we can be contagious with flu a few days before symptoms appear, we may never know if we have infected someone.

If you are not vaccinated, you might infect a cancer patient you don’t know – a fellow shopper, a passenger on the train, a guest at a party – or a cancer patient very close to you.

Getting a flu vaccination is easy and smart. The Center for Disease Control recommends the flu vaccine for anyone over 6 months old. The vaccine can be given in a variety of ways, and is available for free at your doctor’s office or local pharmacy.

At Dana-Farber, we take flu so seriously that every staff member is required to be vaccinated. For us, it’s a matter of patient safety.

If you have a cancer patient in your life, here are some steps you can take to protect him or her from flu:

  1. Make sure this special person has been vaccinated.
  2. Roll up your sleeve and get vaccinated yourself. Encourage others to do so.
  3. Wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer regularly, especially when you come in contact with this person. Ask others to do the same.
  4. Seek permission for physical contact. “Is it ok if I shake your hand?” or “Is it ok if I give you a hug?”
  5. If the person is close to you – a family member or dear friend – become an advocate for flu protection. Ask those who come in contact with your loved one if they have washed their hands and had the flu vaccine.

Saul Weingart, MD, PhD, is vice president for Quality Improvement and Patient Safety at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.