Dr. Alexea Gaffney knows a thing or two about infectious diseases and cancer. Gaffney, a New York-based infectious disease physician at Stony Brook Medicine, is also a breast cancer thriver. And when she’s not sharing her experiences about battling breast cancer, she’s keeping her growing social media audience informed on the best ways to stay safe and healthy during the year.
Gaffney’s insights come at an especially important time for cancer warriors and thrivers—during the start of the cough, cold and flu season. Fighting off infectious diseases and viruses is always a topic of concern for the cancer community due to compromised immune systems. But the mounting complications of the COVID-19 pandemic has made our current cough, cold and flu season particularly gruesome.
For our latest Ask the Doctor feature, Gaffney addresses your questions and concerns about preparing for this difficult health season.
What are your initial concerns about the cough, cold, and flu season?
Now, we’re going to contend with, is it flu, is it RSV or is it COVID-19? And how do we manage? There’s gonna be so many other viruses that we’re contending with at that time. We believe that we’re going to have a natural surge, that this virus is going to take on a seasonality and it’s going to be here for a while. We’re certainly not going to have a vaccine by then.
What sort of things should a warrior or thriver be aware of as it relates to the start of this season?
For cancer survivors—who’ve already experienced surgery, chemo, radiation, have already been in a place where they’ve been immunocompromised, already had to isolate and socially distance—we know how to do this. We know what to do to keep ourselves safe because we had to keep ourselves safe everyday.
For those who are entering into a new cancer diagnosis, there is a reiteration not just to be vigilant, but to be hypervigilant. Continue to wear that mask, continue to protect your eyes. Putting goggles or a face shield on would be even more important because, not only am I going to be facing COVID, I’m going to be facing all the other things that are out there. We’re going to see a rise in a number of infected and contagious people out there amongst us.
Just because the world is reopening or the economy is reopening doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily safe for you as a patient, survivor or thriver to go out and rejoin society. We saw what happened with Florida and Texas and we anticipate that will naturally reoccur when the virus is naturally reintroduced to the country. We just have to be careful. And we can’t get comfortable. We can’t get casual. We can’t be cavalier about any of this because when you’re on chemo, when you’re in radiation, when you’re recovering from surgery, during those times when you’re most vulnerable, the flu is just as bad. Some of these cough, cold viruses can be just as bad as COVID to the vulnerable individuals in our population. We have to be mindful that now, we have six, seven or eight different viruses to contend with at this time.
How can people boost their immune systems naturally?
We live in a society that encourages us to eat on the run, don’t rest, don’t take breaks. Eat out, don’t eat healthy nutritious food because we look at food from a more capitalistic perspective and not from a nutrition and wellness perspective. So boosting your immune system naturally looks like getting enough sleep. Getting seven to eight hours of sleep a night because it plays a huge role in our bodies ability to recover and restore itself. It plays a huge role in hormone cycles, our circadian rhythms and everything pools back into our immune function.
Eating whole foods and eating a healthy, balanced and nutritious diet. I usually tell people to go plant-based. But when I say plant-based, I don’t mean that everybody has to be a vegetarian or vegan, but that plants should be the star of every plate you’re eating. And you should mostly be eating fruits and vegetables so you can get all of the vitamins and nutrients you need for a healthy immune system. So a lot of the things that boost our immune system like vitamin c, zinc, vitamin e, vitamin a—all of those are found in plants. So if we’re ingesting them, then we’re getting the nutrients we need.
High fiber foods are what we call prebiotics. They support our gut bacteria and our gut bacteria are a huge part of our immune system. And most of our immune system lives in our gut. So if our gut is healthy, our immune system will be healthy. And if our immune system is healthy, our mind will be healthy. And if our mind is healthy, it’s all connected.
Exercise also boosts our immune system. It also helps us maintain a healthy weight and a healthy heart, so if we do find ourselves impacted by things like infection, hopefully we won’t be as susceptible to them.