Cancer, your immune system, and the flu

Did you know that if you are a cancer patient or cancer survivor , you are more likely to develop serious complications from catching the flu(1)? This is because your cancer or cancer treatment can weaken your immune system(2), and make it less effective in fighting off the influenza virus that is making you ill.

Cancer and your immune system

Your immune system is your first line of defence against external germs(3) like the influenza virus. It is made up of a network of cells and organs that sends signals to each other to alert the discovery of a germ and fight off the intruders(3). Your bone marrow is where many germ-fighting blood cells are made, so when a cancer spreads to the bone marrow (such as leukaemia or lymphoma), it can hinder your bone marrow’s ability to make these fighter blood cells(2). The result is that you will need more time to recover from the flu, which puts you at a higher risk of developing flu-related complications, such as bronchitis, pneumonia, and sepsis(1).

Your cancer treatment can also weaken your immune system. Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, targeted cancer drugs, and high dose of steroids can impact your bone marrow’s ability to make white blood cells(2), the germ-fighting blood cells that are an important part of your immune system(4).

Cancer survivors and the flu

It is not just people living with cancer who must avoid catching the flu. If you are a cancer survivor, you are also at a higher risk of developing serious complications from the flu(5). Depending on the type of cancer you had, you can be nine times more likely to be hospitalised for flu-related complications(5). This higher risk level can persist up to over ten years after your cancer diagnosis(5).

Protect yourself from the flu

To avoid serious flu-related health complications, if you are living with cancer or if you are a cancer survivor, you need to protect yourself from the influenza virus. The annual flu vaccine is the most effective way to protect yourself from the flu(6), so speak to your doctor or healthcare provider about the flu shot! There is still time to be vaccinated. Other ways to protect yourself from the flu include getting plenty of rest, washing your hands frequently, wearing a face mask in public, eating nutritious meals and exercising to boost your immune system(1).

(1) Flu Facts for Cancer Patients. Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers. Available at: Accessed: 16 January 2023.
(2) The immune system and cancer. Cancer Research UK. Available at: Accessed on 15 January 2023.
(3) Guide to Your Immune System. WebMD Available at: Accessed on: 16 January 2023
(4) White Blood Cell. National Cancer Institute. Available at: Accessed on: 16 January 2023.
(5) Cancer survivors at higher risk of hospitalisation or dying from flu. London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Available at: Accessed: 15 January 2023.
(6) Seasonal influenza vaccines. ECDC. Available at: Accessed: 15 January 2023w/a>


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