As a cancer patient, you may have concerns about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine. You even may question whether you need it. For most cancer patients, the question is not whether to take the vaccine but when. It’s best to make this decision with your physician’s guidance. In the meantime, here is what you need to know.
The three COVID-19 vaccines that are currently available (Pfizer BioEnTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson), are all equally safe. Because they do not contain the live coronavirus, they cannot give you COVID-19, according to Kristen Marks, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.
Only in very rare cases have people experienced serious allergic reactions to the vaccine, and these have generally occurred in individuals with a history of serious allergic reactions. So, as long as you are not allergic to any of the vaccine’s ingredients, and as long as none of the ingredients interact negatively with any of your medications or treatment regimens, then you can safely take it. In fact, because people with cancer are at increased risk for severe COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control urges them, as well as cancer survivors, to get vaccinated.
“We know from very large studies that there were no serious events attributed to the vaccine,” Dr. Marks says. “Because the risk of COVID-19 is so high, concern about an extremely rare side effect shouldn't prevent people from getting the vaccine now.”
All of the vaccines are highly effective, too. You may have heard that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is less effective than the other two, but when it comes to preventing severe COVID-19 and resulting complications--which are particularly dangerous for people with cancer--all three vaccines do the job equally well. They all significantly decrease your risk of becoming acutely ill from the virus and being hospitalized or dying from it. “In studies, the vaccine nearly eliminated severe infections that required people to need oxygen or be hospitalized,” Dr. Marks says. This is especially important for cancer patients, especially those whose treatment may have weakened their immune systems.
Researchers do not yet have data on the vaccines’ actual effectiveness in people with cancer, including those who are undergoing treatment. It is likely, however, that the type of cancer you have will affect the vaccine’s efficacy, Dr. Marks says. Moreover, chemotherapy, radiation, stem cell or bone marrow transplantation, CAR T-cell therapy, immunotherapy, or any other treatment that can affect your immune system may make the vaccine less effective. This does not mean that you should skip vaccination. As Dr. Marks emphasizes, “The benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the risks.”
You should also know that these cancer treatments may compromise your body’s ability to tolerate the vaccine’s side effects. “The vaccine can cause fever, body aches, headaches, or fatigue, and you have to be able to tolerate these sorts of things to have the best chance of responding to it,” Dr. Marks notes. It is important, therefore, to speak with your doctor about the best time for you to take the vaccine, especially if you are about to undergo surgery, so that you can avoid side effects delaying your procedure. “There might be an optimal time within your treatment cycle to take the vaccine to have the best chance of responding to it,” Dr. Marks adds. “If you're very ill with your cancer, it might not be the right time to get the vaccine.”
Every cancer patient is different and will react differently to the COVID-19 vaccine, which is why consulting your doctor is critical. “I’m very encouraged about where we are with all this,” Dr. Marks says. “It's pretty staggering how well the vaccine works. I want people to be optimistic and excited to get it.”