With the coronavirus still at large, and the COVID-19 pandemic still a global disaster, it’s important to take all precautions possible, and to keep yourself and those around you safe. One of the most important safety measures is the vaccine – but what does vaccination mean for cancer patients and survivors? This article aims to address some questions and preconceptions on the vaccine, and why it’s important for cancer patients to get vaccinated whenever possible.
Which vaccines are available?
There are multiple vaccines that have been approved, the three widely used and tested ones being:
- The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (commonly known as the Pfizer vaccine), which is available for those aged 16 or older, and is taken as two shots 3-4 weeks apart.
- The Moderna vaccine, which is available for those aged 18 or older, and is taken as two shots 1 month apart.
- The Johnson & Johnson Janssen vaccine, which is available for those aged 18 or older, and is taken as a single shot.
- The Covishield vaccine (also known as the Oxford or AstraZeneca vaccine), which is available for those aged 18 or older, and is taken as two shots 12-16 weeks apart.
- The Covaxin vaccine, which is available for those aged 18 or older, and is taken as two shots 1 month apart.
- The Sputnik V vaccine, which is available for those aged 18 or older, and is taken as two shots 3 weeks apart.
Can I get the vaccine?
The answer to this question should be given by your doctor and healthcare team, and depends on your type of cancer, treatment plan, and health conditions.
If possible, it is extremely important for cancer patients to get the vaccine. While testing is a constant process, evidence so far shows no detriment to a patient’s health or treatment. Patients who have undergone immunotherapy, radiotherapy, and targeted therapies are generally okay to receive the vaccine.
For patients undergoing procedures that weaken the immune system, including chemotherapy, stem cell transplants, and immunosuppression, it’s important to consult your doctor before taking the vaccine. It may be advised to wait anywhere between 3-12 weeks after the treatment so that the immune system has time to recover before taking the vaccine, or to wait until after vaccination before beginning treatment. Getting vaccinated while immunodeficient can increase risk of infection.
What are the side effects?
Side effects will likely be similar to those of others getting vaccinated, including nausea, redness, swelling, soreness, fever, and fatigue. They may be slightly escalated because of a weakened immune system, but should not impair you beyond a few days. If, after vaccination, your symptoms last more than a week, consult your doctor.
As a cancer patient, you may be more prone to lymph node swelling in your arm as a side effect. This may affect certain scan or mammogram results, so let your doctor know prior to the vaccination in case you plan to carry out any tests afterwards. You may need to wait several weeks for the swelling to reduce before a scan, especially if you are a breast cancer patient.
Patients who have swollen lymph nodes in one arm or near it – from lymph node surgery or lymphedema – are advised to receive the vaccine in the other arm. In case you have swelling in both arms, the thigh may be an alternate area for vaccination. Make sure to let your nurse or technician know of your situation before taking the vaccine.
Will vaccination affect my treatment? Will my treatment affect my vaccination?
As of yet, there is no data proving that the COVID-19 vaccines have any effect on cancer treatment procedures, or that such treatments weaken the effect of the vaccine.
Since every patients’ condition is different, it’s important to discuss vaccination with your healthcare team since they’ll know the specifics of your treatment, and will be able to provide a better overview or plan.
When it comes to the vaccine,
- Discuss vaccination with your doctor. Since they will know your condition best, they will be able to advise you on when to get the vaccine, which vaccine to get, and how it may affect you.
- Get vaccinated if possible. If you are not undergoing immunosuppresive treatment, and your doctor permits it, vaccination is highly recommended. Cancer can weaken the immune system, making you increasingly prone to COVID-19. It can also come with comorbidities, further putting you at risk.
- Encourage those around you to get vaccinated. Caregivers and loved ones who spend time around you should get vaccinated to reduce the spread, especially if you cannot get vaccinated yourself.
- Let your team know about your vaccination. It may affect scans and surgeries you are to undergo, and they should be aware of any side effects you are having beforehand.
- Continue to take precautions. While the vaccine can decrease your risk of contracting COVID-19, it is not a fully preventative measure. Continue to wear a mask and to wash your hands frequently and with soap. Stay indoors as much as possible and avoid large gatherings of people.
- Take the vaccine against advice. If you have an especially weakened immune system, or in the middle of a procedure, the vaccine may affect you or cause unnecessary difficulty. Go by your doctor’s order on when to take the vaccine.
- Get other vaccines in the same time period. This applies for all those getting vaccinated, but is especially important for cancer patients. Always let your doctor know which vaccines you’re due for, and discuss scheduling with them. Multple vaccines can seriously impair your immune system and counterproductively increase your risk of infection, as well as having unwanted side effects.
- Hesitate to report extreme side effects. Very rarely can there be detrimental side effects to the vaccine: in the case of the Janssen vaccine, blood clotting can occur in infrequent cases. If you notice anything of the like, let your doctor know immediately so it can be looked into. If you get a high grade fever that doesn’t go away, or other symptoms lasting beyond a week, raise them as a concern.
- Self-medicate your side effects. Your doctor may recommend painkillers or other medication to alleviate your symptoms, such as headaches and fever. Do not take medication outside of what has been prescribed or suggested, since it may have a negative impact on you.
Overall, make sure you’re in close contact with your healthcare providers in regards to your vaccination. Follow the medical advice you’re given, and avoid straying from prescribed medications and scheduled dates. When possible, get vaccinated, take precautions, and stay indoors to keep yourself safe, and others safe too.
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