Flu Season & Cancer

As the days get shorter and the weather turns colder, more of us will be spending time indoors.  That means more time spent around others who may unknowingly be sharing their cold and flu germs with you.  Anyone with cancer needs to be very vigilant on protecting themselves from these germs as your immune system is already compromised and weakened.  It doesn’t require any sort of hibernation from others until the spring thaw but it does mean practicing some basic habits getting you through this season healthy and sickness-free.

The body’s main defense against the common cold and the flu are the white blood cells that make up the immune system.  When the immune system is strong, you are less likely to contract a cold or flu virus.  But in cancer patients and particularly those on chemotherapy, they may have abnormally low levels of a white blood cell called neutrophils that help prevent and fight infections.  Chemotherapy-induced neutropenia increases a person’s risk of infection and can disrupt cancer treatment. 

In order to avoid becoming sick during cold and flu season, here are some tips keeping bacterial infections at a distance:

·         Get a flu shot

By far this is your first line of defense and is one of the easiest things we all should do.  The more people who get their flu shot, the fewer incidences of flu there will be.  It is still not too late to get a flu shot but the sooner you can, the better. 

·         Keep your workplace well-sanitized

No matter where you work, in a cubicle, an office, or even at home, keep the area where you do most of your work at as clean as possible.  Keep some sort of a disinfectant close by to wipe or spray off potential germs that can be passed on to you – chair armrests, door handles, remote controls, desktops, shared computer keyboards, photocopier, microwaves, elevator buttons, etc. 

·         Soothe yourself with hot tea

Any type of tea will do – green, ginger, turmeric, chamomile, white – the steam from the heat will brush past the tiny hair follicles inside the nose helping to clear out potential cold-causing germs.  Add in some honey, a beneficial antibacterial along with a dose of vitamin C enriched lemon juice to help thin mucus.

·         Break out into a sweat

Most oncologists encourage cancer patients to obtain sufficient exercise during their treatment.  If you are able, work out on a regular basis by going for a brisk walk, jog, lift weights or dive into a pool for an invigorating swim.  Exercise strengthens the immune system along with producing “feel-good” energy enhancing endorphins.

·         Notice any symptoms

Be alert and aware for the beginnings of any symptoms of a cold or the flu.  Cancer is a chronic disease and if you contract an illness, it can turn into a more serious condition than the average person.  Recognize symptoms such as sneezing, a scratchy or sore throat, aching muscles, headache, a low-grade fever, or coughing.  Anything out of the ordinary needs to be acted on right away to nip the illness in the bud as soon as possible.  Keep your doctor notified of any changes that occur and heed their advice on how to treat them.

·         Manage alcohol wisely

First, consult with your oncologist regarding alcohol use when you have cancer.  One way that alcohol can have a negative effect on your immune system is that it can interfere with sleep.  The less sleep you get, the more weaker your immune system can become which does your battle with cancer or preventing a cold of the flu, no good.

·         Avoid touching your face

The best way for cold and flu germs to make entry into your body is by transfer from your hands to the openings in the face – your nose, mouth, eyes and ears. Refrain from touching any area of the face as much as possible to reduce the chance of getting sick.

·         Wash your hands frequently throughout the day

If you shake someone’s hands, wash yours soon afterwards.  If you share a pen with someone, wash your hands (and the pen) as soon as possible.  Always wash your hands after using the restroom and before eating.  Keep a hand sanitizer with you at all times in case there is not a restroom close by to wash your hands.  This habit can be one of the most effective in preventing the spread of colds and flu of any. 

·         Eat a nutritious diet

Feed your body the most nutritious foods you can containing lots of antioxidants and phytochemicals.  This means lots of foods in their natural state – the Mother Nature made them – arming yourself with a strong nutritional arsenal of nutrients ready to fight off disease-causing germs. Load up on fruits, veggies, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds, lean meat, fish and poultry and low-fat dairy.  Eat consistent meals – no skipping of meals – and keep yourself well-hydrated with water. 

Some cancer patients may be tempted to want to use dietary supplements such as extra vitamins or minerals to keep themselves healthy.  It is strongly advised to always discuss this with your oncologist before taking any supplements as some may actually feed the tumor promoting tumor growth.

The healthier you go into cold and flu season, the better equipped you’ll be to fend off the germs that cause them.