Want to Support People with Cancer? Get a Flu Shot

Every year, health experts implore us to get vaccinated against the flu. And every year, many of us ignore them. I’m one of those who some years, neglects to get the vaccine, despite overwhelming evidence it can lower my risk of the flu, and the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since 2010 that everyone over 6 months get vaccinated.

I have to assume most people make the decision not to get vaccinated based on their own assessment of their risk. “I haven’t gotten the flu in years, so why bother.” Then there are those on the other end who’ve actually had the flu, and say to themselves: Never again.” If you think you had the flu, but aren’t sure? You probably did not have it. Believe me, you will not forget it.

Ironically, the flu vaccine, just like vaccines against whooping cough and other diseases, is a victim of its own success. Most people don’t realize the broader value of vaccination is something called herd immunity: if enough people get vaccinated, it lowers the risk for everyone, even those who have not gotten the vaccine.

Herd immunity is also critical in when it comes to mitigating the unfortunate truth that the vaccine is not perfect. Some people get the vaccine and still get sick. Unfortunately, they are likely to conclude vaccines aren’t worth it. Quite the opposite. If more people had been vaccinated, the chances of a vaccine “failure” are lessened because of herd immunity.

These are fairly complicated issues, so most people still decide whether or not to get a shot based on their individual risk.

But now the CDC is helping spread a more community-minded approach: hoping people will get their flu vaccine based on the plain fact that doing so protects your loved ones from the flu.

Let’s make the choice even easier: Cancer patients and cancer survivors are more likely to have serious problems if they get the flu. For years, that’s led to advice that people with a history of cancer get vaccinated. But the American Cancer Society also includes this important advice:

For extra protection, encourage everyone in your household older than 6 months to get the flu shot, too. This lessens their chance of illness, and lowers the risk they will bring the flu home to you.

With more than 13 million people with a history of cancer alive in the United States, maybe it’s time for all of us to realize we need to get vaccinated not just for ourselves –or even for our families–but also for those who are cancer survivors and especially for those currently undergoing treatment for chronic diseases, like cancer. I have to think the potential lifesaving is worth the minor discomfort. Right?

About David Sampson

I am the director of medical and scientific communications for the American Cancer Society national home office.
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