COVID-19 FAQ for Cancer Patients
This has been a stressful and disruptive year for all of us due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the COVID-19 vaccinations begin, you may have many questions about the COVID-19 vaccine and wonder if you can and should receive the vaccine. We hope that the following information will address your questions and concerns.
How do the vaccines work?
The COVID-19 vaccines are messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. This is a new approach for vaccines that has been studied for over a decade. When you receive the vaccine, the mRNA provides instructions to cells at the injection site to make a piece of the “spike protein” that is unique to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). Only a piece of the protein is made, and this protein does not do any harm to the individual vaccinated. These vaccines do not contain live virus, so there is no risk of developing COVID-19 infection from the vaccination.
The immune system detects the partial spike protein that is made by your cells and responds by producing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. In that way, the immune system will then be ready to protect you against infection.
Are the vaccines safe? Are the vaccines safe for patients with cancer?
The approved vaccines were tested in large clinical trials and have met all safety standards. The safety of the vaccines will continue to be monitored closely. The FDA has said that people who have had severe allergic reactions to other vaccines or to the particular components of the COVID-19 vaccine, should avoid getting the vaccine.
The COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials excluded patients who recently received or were receiving immunosuppressive treatments for cancer therapy (this includes chemotherapy and some other anti-cancer treatments). Because of this, there are no specific data on the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine in this patient population. However, there is no obvious reason to suspect that the vaccines will be unsafe for patients with cancer.
Are the vaccines against COVID-19 effective? Are they effective in patients with cancer?
In clinical trials, the vaccines have been shown to be over 90 percent effective in protecting against COVID-19 infection. Because patients with cancer were excluded from the clinical trials, it is not known whether patients who are immunosuppressed by cancer or by cancer treatment will mount the same immune response after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. This will be studied in further trials.
Should I get the vaccine if I have cancer?
Patients with certain cancers are at higher risk of COVID-19 infection and complications from the virus. If you have had cancer in the past, recently completed cancer treatment, or are on active cancer treatment, we feel that the potential benefit of vaccination outweighs the risk of COVID-19 infection and potential complications from the disease.
What side effects can I expect?
Vaccination requires two doses several weeks apart in order for optimal effectiveness. The most common side effects of the vaccine include pain and swelling on the arm where the vaccine is given, as well as fever, chills, fatigue, and headache. It is important to get the second shot even if you have side effects from the first shot unless your doctor instructs you otherwise.
Where do I get the vaccine? When will it be available for me?
The vaccines are available under an Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA. The priorities for who is vaccinated first are based on recommendations from the CDC. The goal is for everyone to have access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Currently, vaccines are available only to individuals in Category 1A, defined as those serving in healthcare settings who have the potential for exposure to patients and to long-term care residents. As more vaccine becomes available, vaccines will become available to people 75 years or older as well as essential workers (category 1B). The next category of individuals, Category 1C are adults of 65 and over and adults with underlying medical conditions. After these phases are complete, it is anticipated that vaccine will be available for the general population.
We hope this information is helpful. As we learn more about COVID-19 and about vaccination, our understanding and recommendations may evolve. The decision to be vaccinated is a personal one and should be made in discussion with your health care provider.
Although vaccination has started, it will take many months for everyone to be vaccinated. For now, the pandemic is still here, so it is critically important to continue to mask, practice social distancing, and be diligent about hand-washing, whether or not you have been vaccinated. We want you to stay safe.