A photograph with a blurred background of a person holding a vial that reads "Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine".

COVID-19 Vaccines: Here is What Cancer Patients and Survivors Need to Know Now

  • We know that the COVID-19 vaccinations available for use in the United States are both safe and highly effective. Both the Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines have been through a stringent clinical trial process approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But, if you or a loved one has—or previously had—cancer, you may still have a lot of questions about the vaccines.

    Every cancer patient is different, and the first step to getting vaccinated is talking with your oncologist about your cancer and treatment to determine the right immunization plan for you.

    “As the vaccines become available, your particular situation should be discussed with your provider,” explained Jeffrey Farma, MD, FACS, a surgical oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

    That said, there are some things experts can say for sure about the vaccines right now, and that information is important for every cancer patient and survivor to know:

    • If you have ever had cancer, you should get the vaccine when it is available to you: Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself against COVID-19, and experts agree that high-risk groups (like cancer patients and others with underlying medical conditions) should be prioritized for immunizations. But again, it’s crucial to talk with your care team to determine the best vaccination plan for you based on your cancer type and treatment plan (especially if you are undergoing active treatment for cancer).
      • For patients undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, or targeted therapy: These treatments may lessen the vaccine’s effectiveness, but experts don’t know by how much yet. “The point of vaccination is to have the immune system create a response to protect against the virus, and the immune system might not create enough of a response if you’re immunocompromised,” Farma said. In most cases the benefits of getting vaccinated are still worth it and will not affect your treatment.
      • For patients on immunotherapy: This form of treatment actually stimulates the immune system instead of suppressing it. Vaccinations for these patients will generally be encouraged.
      • For patients participating in a clinical trial: Clinical trials usually have specific guidelines regarding what is allowed and not allowed for patients participating in the study. “Both of the currently approved COVID-19 vaccinations are mRNA vaccines. They are not live vaccines [which are often not permissible on a clinical trial]. Both are safe and patients may be allowed to receive them while participating in a clinical trial,” said Anthony Olszanski, MD, RPh, a medical oncologist at Fox Chase. “We don’t anticipate that you would have to stop your clinical trial treatment to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.”
      • For patients undergoing surgery: Patients should allow for a certain number of weeks in between their vaccination and surgery. “These are unique situations that should be discussed on a case-by-case basis,” Farma said. For some, it might make more sense to undergo surgery and get vaccinated after they’ve recovered. For others, putting off surgery until after getting the vaccine might make more sense.
      • For patients who have undergone or are undergoing a bone marrow transplant (BMT): The idea behind a BMT is to wipe out the immune system and bring a new one in, a rejuvenated one. “But, there is going to be a time when there simply isn’t adequate bone marrow to generate an immune response. Your hematologist will know best when that window of opportunity is and when the COVID-19 vaccine is most likely to be most effective,” Olszanski said.
      • For survivors or those in active surveillance: Patients in the surveillance phase or those who have been free from cancer for longer than five years should be vaccinated. Talk with your doctor about any specific questions or concerns you might have, like whether you still fall into a high-risk category and should get vaccinated sooner.
    • The vaccines have been tested thoroughly enough to know that they’re safe: “The entire clinical trial scenario, while expedited, has not been rushed. It has worked the way it is supposed to work. Tens of thousands of people were and are currently on the trials. Hundreds of thousands of people have been vaccinated to date,” Olszanski said. “These vaccines are considered safe, and everyone should be seeking out a vaccine as soon as it is available to them.”
    • The COVID-19 vaccines will not cause you to get the coronavirus: “There is no danger of someone who’s immunocompromised getting COVID-19 from the vaccine,” Farma said.
    • You’ll still need to wear your mask and continue social distancing after being vaccinated—for now: It’ll take some time before enough people are vaccinated to achieve herd immunity—where the majority of the population is protected. “When we have the majority of people vaccinated and the number of new cases falls dramatically, we’ll get the go-ahead to start relaxing our guard a little bit,” Olszanski said. “But, we shouldn’t do that until we’re told to. We must continue to be vigilant and do our part until we are told otherwise.”
    • Vaccinations for patients are coming soon: The vaccines are currently approved for emergency use and are now being given to health care workers, residents of long-term care facilities, and specific groups who are eligible to receive it according to CDC guidance. But they’re expected to become more widely available soon. “It is our hope that by springtime, more of the general population should be able to get vaccinated,” Farma said. “And cancer patients are one group who’ll be at the top of the list.”

    That’s why he recommends starting the vaccination conversation with your care team now. “It’s happening. We are beginning to see a light at the end of a very dark tunnel.” Farma said.