What are immunizations?

Immunizations help your body build a resistance to specific diseases. Most immunizations work by introducing a small, safe amount of the disease to your immune system. This way if you are ever exposed to the disease, your body’s immune system already knows how to fight it. Most immunizations are vaccines given as a shot or series of shots.

Many people receive one-time immunizations when they are children for diseases such as chickenpox. Some immunizations, such as tetanus shots, need boosters to keep them effective. Other immunizations, such as flu vaccines, need to be received annually.

What are the risks of vaccines?

As with any treatment or medication, vaccines can cause side effects. Each vaccine carries risk for different side effects. Most side effects are minor such as pain where you receive the shot and mild fever. There are risks for serious side effects, but vaccines are carefully tested for safety. In most cases, the great benefits of vaccines outweigh the minor risks. To learn more, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Talk to your healthcare team about the risks and benefits of vaccines to determine what is best for you.

I’m a cancer survivor; what immunizations do I need?

For cancer survivors, immunizations are especially important because cancer treatments weaken the body’s immune system. Below is the immunizations schedule recommended by the CDC for people with weakened immune systems, such as cancer survivors.

Vaccine

Schedule

Influenza (flu) Annually
Tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis (Td/Tdap) One Tdap vaccine with Td booster every 10 years.
Varicella (chickenpox)* Should NOT get vaccine**
HPV vaccine* 3 doses through age 26 (women) or 21 (men)
Zoster (shingles) Should NOT get vaccine**
Measles, mumps, rubella (MMR)* Should NOT get vaccine**
Pneumococcal (PCV13) 1 dose
Pneumococcal (PPSV23) 1 or 2 doses
Meningococcal Ask your healthcare team
Hepatitis A* Ask your healthcare team
Hepatitis B* Ask your healthcare team

Source: Center for Disease Control

* These vaccines are only for adults who did not get them as children.

** If you received these vaccines before your cancer diagnosis, there is no harm done. In fact, it is good that you are protected from these diseases. If you have not received these vaccines, it is not safe to receive them with a weakened immune system.

If you are planning to travel outside of the United States, check the recommended vaccines for where you are going. You may need additional immunizations.

If you are in active treatment, always consult with your oncologist before receiving any vaccine.

Keep track of your immunization records with this worksheet.

What else do cancer survivors need to know about immunizations?

Influenza (Flu)

If you are a cancer survivor, the CDC recommends getting the annual flu vaccine. However, only get the flu shot; do NOT get the nasal spray version. The nasal spray version contains live viruses so it is not safe for people with a compromised immune system.

Caregivers or anyone living with a cancer survivor should also receive the flu vaccine to lower the risk of infection.

Pneumococcal

There are two pneumococcal vaccines: PVV13 and PPSV23. For cancer survivors, doses of each may be needed. Ask your healthcare team about the best pneumococcal schedule for you.

Meningococcal, Hepatitis A and B

These vaccines are recommended for adults with certain jobs, lifestyles, or other health factors that increase their risk of these diseases. Your healthcare team can tell you if you are at a higher risk.

Varicella, Zoster, and MMR

As shown in the chart above, people with a compromised immune system, such as cancer survivors currently or recently out of treatment, should NOT receive these vaccines.