Alberta Cancer Foundation

Expert Advice on Cancer and Common Ailments

Illustration by Jennifer Madole.



Common ailments such as the cold or flu can be a nuisance to the average person with a healthy immune system. But, for someone undergoing cancer treatment, a cold or flu bug can be a lot more serious. Dr. Margaret Churcher, a family physician in Calgary, explains why:

Q: Why is a cold or flu virus a concern for cancer patients?

A cold or flu compromises the body’s immune system. In a person undergoing treatment for cancer, the immune system is already compromised, so, if they get sick, especially with the flu, they can develop serious complications (like sinus infections and pneumonia), which can put their lives at risk. A cold is less serious because it doesn’t impact the immune system as much. Congestion from a cold can be unpleasant, but it doesn’t present the same danger as the flu. People with head and neck cancers or leukemia and lymphoma face additional risks. Because of their types of cancer, they are more likely to get what are known as opportunistic infections such as tuberculosis, hepatitis and shingles.

Q: How does cancer treatment affect patients’ immune systems?

Treatment for cancer ideally would only attack the cancerous cells in the body, but it isn’t yet advanced enough to know which cells specifically to target, so it attacks all cells, including the immune system. This is why cancer patients have a compromised immune system when undergoing treatment.

Q: What is the most dangerous common ailment for cancer patients?

If a cancer patient does get the flu, they need to be seen right away by their family doctor or in emergency care so doctors can check for fever and possible febrile neutroprenia or other complications. Febrile neutroprenia is when your acute white blood cell count becomes dangerously low, and your body becomes unable to mount a response to an infection.

Q: How do these common ailments affect cancer treatment?

If your immune system has been compromised for any reason, and your white blood cell count is too low to undergo chemotherapy and radiation, you might have to wait until it bounces back up to continue your cancer treatment. Delaying treatment could be a problem for patients with aggressive forms of cancer.

Q: What can patients do to avoid getting ill?

Cancer patients don’t have to avoid being out in public, but they do have to be cautious. [I’d recommend they] wash their hands frequently and be aware of the signs and symptoms of influenza, which are fever and cough, sore throat, headache and aches and pains, so that, if they do become infected, they can seek treatment right away. This is where the vaccine becomes especially important. Some cancer patients are worried that the flu vaccine will compromise their immune systems and affect their treatment, but the vaccine does not contain the live virus, so it does not harm you. The flu vaccine is never dangerous, but there is a chance that it would not work as well if you’re undergoing treatment and your immune system is down because your body might be less able to mount a response to the vaccine. If your oncologist recommends you not take the influenza vaccine, then it would be very important to have everyone around you vaccinated.

Q: What else can people close to patients do?

In addition to the vaccine, family members can help keep cancer patients well by following regular preventative measures like hand washing. It’s also wise to keep their distance if they are ill themselves.

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