Study Finds COVID-19 Vaccines Using mRNA Technology Safe for People With Cancer

Dr. Eric M. Horwitz, lead researcher on the study
Dr. Eric M. Horwitz, lead researcher on the study

PHILADELPHIA (February 7, 2022)—According to a new study from researchers at Fox Chase Cancer Center, mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 is just as safe for people with cancer as it is for cancer-free individuals.

The researchers tracked short-term side effects from more than 1,753 recipients of the Pfizer BNT162b2 vaccine and found no additional reactions for patients undergoing active cancer treatment (surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or radiation therapy) or who had completed treatment.

“Patients, their families, and their medical caregivers should absolutely find these results reassuring. We surveyed almost 2,000 patients and found that cancer patients aren’t at risk for any unexpected reactions to being vaccinated compared to people without cancer,” said Eric M. Horwitz, MD, FABS, FASTRO, lead researcher and chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. Fox Chase is part of the Temple University Health System.

“We now have the data and the clinical experience from thousands and thousands and thousands of cancer patients who have been vaccinated. We know that the mRNA vaccines are safe and are absolutely the most effective way to prevent hospitalization and death from COVID-19,” said Horwitz, who is also the Gerald E. Hanks Endowed Chair in Radiation Oncology at Fox Chase.

The results come from in person, phone, and online surveys given to people who received two doses of the mRNA vaccine three weeks apart between February 16 and May 15, 2021. A total of 1,183 people with a history of cancer responded to both surveys, with 17.8% then currently undergoing treatment.

Respondents reported experiencing pain at the injection site, muscle pain, joint pain, fever, chills, headache, nausea, and fatigue at similar rates as those reported by people without cancer from the original clinical trials for the vaccine. Adverse effects for people undergoing immunotherapy also mirrored those in the general population.

“It’s crucial that cancer patients get vaccinated against COVID-19 because we know they can be particularly vulnerable to infection and its consequences, but some people have expressed concerns about possible reactions from the vaccines,” Horwitz said.

“Before this study, there wasn’t a lot of data specifically on the cancer population so we made sure to collect and report this information to help both patients and physicians make informed decisions to get mRNA vaccines,” he added.

“Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 was an opportunity for me to take control and help protect myself,” said Dan Burkus, who has been treated at Fox Chase. “Undergoing cancer treatment and follow-up can be terrifying, especially during a pandemic. This new proof that people with cancer won’t have any extra side effects from the mRNA vaccines is one less thing to worry about and one more reason to get the shot.”

“The investigators convincingly showed no greater incidence of side effects in patients with a history of cancer, and in fact recipients with a history of cancer had lower rates of pain at the injection site,” said Natalie Callander, MD, of the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center, a member of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network® (NCCN ®) Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Vaccination and Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis.

“Over half the patients in this large prospective study had a history of cancer and about 18% were on active treatment,” added Callander, who was not involved in the research. “This study demonstrates that cancer patients experience no greater rate of complications and should help to counteract misinformation about COVID-19 vaccinations. This report provides additional reassurance to practitioners and patients that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and should be offered without hesitation in accordance with CDC and NCCN recommendations.”

The study, “Adverse Events Reported by Patients With Cancer After Administration of a 2-Dose mRNA COVID-19 Vaccine,” was published in JNCCN—Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.

Fox Chase Cancer Center (Fox Chase), which includes the Institute for Cancer Research and the American Oncologic Hospital and is a part of Temple Health, is one of the leading comprehensive cancer centers in the United States. Founded in 1904 in Philadelphia as one of the nation’s first cancer hospitals, Fox Chase was also among the first institutions to be designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1974. Fox Chase is also one of just 10 members of the Alliance of Dedicated Cancer Centers. Fox Chase researchers have won the highest awards in their fields, including two Nobel Prizes. Fox Chase physicians are also routinely recognized in national rankings, and the Center’s nursing program has received the Magnet recognition for excellence six consecutive times. Today, Fox Chase conducts a broad array of nationally competitive basic, translational, and clinical research, with special programs in cancer prevention, detection, survivorship, and community outreach. It is the policy of Fox Chase Cancer Center that there shall be no exclusion from, or participation in, and no one denied the benefits of, the delivery of quality medical care on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity/expression, disability, age, ancestry, color, national origin, physical ability, level of education, or source of payment.

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