Conventional Ways to Fight Infection and Cancer

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Growth factors

Medications called "growth factors" help stimulate the growth of your blood cells. Neupogen (chemical name: filgrastim) can boost your immune cell count, and Procrit (chemical name: epoetin alfa), Epogen (chemical name: epoetin alfa), or Aranesp (chemical name: darbepoetin alfa) can raise your red blood cell count.

Flu shot

The flu arrives in most areas of the United States during the winter months, and flu shots are usually available several months before that. It's particularly important for women affected by breast cancer to get a flu shot.

What is a flu shot?

The flu shot, or influenza vaccine, is a mixture of dead flu viruses that prepares the immune system to fight the actual virus if it enters the body. It's like giving a search-and-rescue dog a shoe to sniff so that the dog remembers the scent and can find the owner of the shoe. The immune system remembers the viruses in the flu shot, and is ready to attack if one shows up in your body. The viruses are destroyed quickly, before you come down with any symptoms.

Getting the shot does not guarantee that you won't get the flu, but it does mean that you have a much smaller chance of getting sick from it.

Why is the flu shot important for women affected by breast cancer?

There is a common misconception that getting a flu shot may be harmful if your immune system is weakened by disease or treatment. Getting a flu shot is particularly important for people with weak immune systems, because they are the ones who are the most vulnerable if they actually catch the flu. These people include babies, the elderly, people with allergies, and people with chronic or acute illnesses.

When should you get the flu shot?

Try to get the flu shot two months before the flu usually hits your area. Some areas are affected earlier than others. Many areas are hit in January and February, so the time to get the shot is November or December. Ask your doctor about the recommended time for your area.

People receiving chemotherapy can get the flu shot any time. However, your doctor might advise you to wait and get the shot when your white blood cell count is at a peak, usually the day before your next treatment. There are two reasons for this:

  • The higher your white count, the more effective the shot will be. A low count is like a search-and-rescue dog with a weak sense of smell. The weaker its sense of smell, the less likely it is to recognize the owner of the shoe. Your immune system will be able to fight the flu better if there are more immune cells around to "sniff" the viruses in the flu shot.
  • Side effects of the flu shot might be confused with infection. Chemotherapy lowers your white blood cell counts. When your counts are the lowest, your risk of infection is the highest. During treatment, your doctor watches you carefully for signs of infection, like fever. But the flu shot can also cause a fever. If you get a fever while your counts are low, your doctor has to treat you for infection, possibly with unnecessary hospitalization, tests, and antibiotic therapy. Your doctor may not want to introduce this confusion when your risk for infection is highest.

If your counts are chronically low, generally you can receive the flu shot any time.

Ask your doctor when is the best time for YOU to get your flu shot. And make sure to get the "OK" from your cancer doctors first.

Who should give you the flu shot?

Any qualified medical person can administer the flu shot. However, some insurance plans cover the flu shot only if you get it from your primary physician. Find out what your policy covers before you decide where to get the shot.

Does the flu shot have side effects?

In most people the flu shot causes no reaction. The viruses in the shot are dead, so you cannot get the flu from it.

In some people, the flu shot may cause mild side effects, including soreness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given, fever, and aches.

These mild symptoms usually begin soon after the shot is given, and last one to two days.

Like any medication, the flu shot can cause a serious allergic reaction, but the risk of this is very small. If you have any unusual problems a few minutes to a few hours after getting the shot, such as high fever, difficulty breathing, hives, weakness, or dizziness, call your doctor right away.

For more about flu shots, you can download information from the Centers for Disease Control website.

Pneumonia shot (pneumococcal vaccine)

What is the pneumococcal vaccine?

Pneumonia — a bacterial infection in the lungs — is a common complication from the flu. In addition to a flu shot every fall, it's a good idea to get a once-in-a-lifetime pneumococcal vaccine.

Why get the pneumococcal vaccine?

  • The shot protects against almost all of the bacteria that cause pneumonia.
  • It's safe.
  • It's covered by Medicare.
  • Most people only need one shot to protect them for the rest of their lives.

Who should get the pneumococcal vaccine?

  • people age 65 or older
  • people with a chronic illness such as advanced breast cancer, heart or lung disease, or diabetes
  • people with a weak immune system due to illness and/or the effects of chemotherapy
  • residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
  • Alaskan Natives and certain American Indian populations

What are the side effects of the pneumococcal vaccine?

You cannot get pneumonia from the vaccine. Some people may experience mild side effects, however. These can include swelling and soreness at the spot where the shot was given. A few people may experience a fever and/or muscle pain.

You can get more information on the pneumococcal vaccine from the U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control or from MetaStar, a nonprofit health care quality improvement organization.

Egg allergy alert:

The virus in the flu shot is developed in egg products. If you are allergic to eggs, discuss with your doctor whether you should get the shot.

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