FAQs: Cancer and the COVID-19 Vaccine

Male Black doctor wearing mask and shield injecting vaccine shot into female Brown patient's arm

We understand that people who have, or have had cancer, have many questions about getting vaccinated, and we are here to help. Below are the answers to commonly asked questions about the COVID-19 vaccine and cancer. For more general information about the COVID-19 vaccine, please read our COVID-19 Vaccine FAQs page. 

Should I get the COVID-19 vaccine as a cancer patient?

Yes, COVID-19 vaccines should be given to all cancer patients when they are eligible to receive the vaccine. Immunization is recommended for all patients receiving active therapy and cancer survivors, with the understanding that there are limited safety and efficacy data in these patients.

Studies have shown that cancer patients are at a high-risk for serious COVID-19 complications, which is why there is a clear need to vaccinate cancer patients. There is a possibility that your oncology care team may advise you to delay vaccination after receiving specific treatments. 

When can I get the COVID-19 vaccine? Will cancer patients be prioritized?

Yes, vaccination is being done in several phases. The plan is to give the vaccine to frontline essential workers, older adults, and adults with certain high-risk medical conditions before giving the vaccine to everyone else. According to recommendations from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, individuals with active cancer on treatment, those planning to start treatment, or those immediately post treatment will be prioritized for vaccination. Each state or local health department will have their own plans for who exactly to give the vaccine to and in what order – in many cases full details are not yet available. Please see individual state websites for the most up to date information. Penn Medicine Abramson Cancer Center is currently working on the first phase of administering COVID-19 vaccines to cancer patients.

Where can I get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Vaccinations are being done based on your place of residence, by state and county. Right now, in our downtown hospitals we can only vaccinate patients who live in Philadelphia. We have started with cancer patients, along with patients who have other high-risk medical conditions, and people 75 and over. Due to a very limited supply, Penn Medicine is contacting those patients who are at the highest risk first. When it is your turn, someone from Penn will reach out to you directly either through myPennMedicine or by phone. Your providers are not able to schedule vaccine appointments for patients. 

We are awaiting guidance for the counties that surround Philadelphia and expect to be offering the vaccine at more of our locations soon. Information about the vaccine is constantly changing. We encourage you to register with your county’s health department website and regularly check Penn Medicine’s COVID-19 Vaccine website, which we are updating as we learn more. If you are a patient at Penn Medicine Chester County Hospital, Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health or Penn Medicine Princeton Health, please check their websites for more information. 

Who do I contact about getting the COVID-19 vaccine? How do I get on a list to receive the COVID-19 vaccine?

If you are eligible and live in Philadelphia, you should receive an email or phone call from us in the coming weeks. We encourage you to sign up for a myPennMedicine account to make it easier to receive important messages from us and schedule your vaccine appointment when it is available. 

Can I get COVID-19 from the vaccine?

No. You cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccine. None of the vaccines under development are “live” vaccines so it is not possible to get COVID-19 from the vaccine.

How do the COVID-19 vaccines work? 

The two currently authorized vaccines under the FDA’s emergency use authorization (Pfizer and Moderna) contain messenger RNA. After injection, mRNA instructs human cells to make the spike protein of the virus, which is how the virus attaches to cells. Antibodies are generated against the spike protein, which block the virus from attaching to cells if you are exposed. Other parts of the immune system are also activated by the vaccine to provide protection against future COVID-19 infection.

Currently approved vaccines require 2 doses (3 weeks apart for the Pfizer vaccine and 4 weeks apart for the Moderna vaccine). Even after both doses have been given, mask wearing and social distancing is still recommended. The COVID-19 vaccines studies showed they were about 95% effective in preventing disease and helped protect people from becoming more severely ill or having complications if they did get COVID-19. It is important to understand that the 95% effectiveness is not achieved until at least 7 days after the 2nd dose of your COVID vaccine.

What are side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine?

You may have some side effects, which are normal signs that your body is building protection against COVID-19. Commonly reported side effects after vaccination include: pain or swelling at the site of the injection, fevers, chills, tiredness, headache, and flu-like symptoms are possible. In some cases, these side effects may affect your ability to do daily activities, but they should go away in a few days. If these symptoms are lasting longer, please contact your oncology care team. 

As a cancer patient, if you are on active therapy, it is very important that you contact your care team if you develop any fevers above 100.4F after your COVID-19 vaccination. When doing so, make your team aware that you were recently vaccinated. More information is available on the CDC website.  

Should I get the COVID-19 vaccine if I already had COVID-19?

Yes. The CDC recommends getting the vaccine even if you have already had COVID-19, because the vaccine may help protect you from getting COVID-19 again. However, you should wait 90-days after infection before getting the vaccine. 

What about allergic reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine?

Rare cases of severe allergic reactions have been reported with both currently available vaccines. If you have had a severe allergy to one of the ingredients in the vaccine, you should not get it (ingredients are listed online). The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do not include any antibiotics or egg proteins.

If you have ever had a severe allergic reaction to other vaccines or injectable therapies, you should talk to your doctor about whether you should get the vaccine. If you have had other severe allergic reactions, such as allergies to food, pets, venom, environmental exposures, or latex, the CDC recommends that you still get the vaccine. If you have had previous severe allergic reactions, you should be monitored for 30 minutes after getting the vaccine instead of the normal 15 minutes. If you have an Epi-Pen or other medication you use for allergic reactions you should bring it when you get your vaccine, although treatments should also be available at the vaccine location. If you have a severe allergic reaction after getting the first shot, you should not get the second shot. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist in allergies and immunology to provide more care or advice.

Should I stop any of my medications before getting the COVID-19 vaccine?

No. At this time there is no evidence to suggest stopping a medication will make the vaccine work better. Stopping medications could negatively affect your health in other ways. Some medications may influence how well the COVID-19 vaccine works, but most people on active treatment are still expected to have a good response to the vaccine. Talk with your oncologist to discuss the risks and benefits of vaccination, as in some cases it may be recommended to delay vaccination or treatment. 

Could medications that weaken the immune system (immunosuppressive medications) affect how well the COVID-19 vaccine works?

We recommend getting the vaccine no matter which medications you are taking. It is possible that certain medications could affect how well the vaccine works, but most medicines will probably have very little effect on vaccine efficacy. We expect that most people will still benefit from the vaccine. Some medicines may have a bigger effect, but even people on these treatments can still benefit from the vaccine. Mask wearing and social distancing are still recommended for everyone after receiving the vaccine. 

What if I am pregnant or breast feeding or plan to become pregnant?

Pregnancy is not a contraindication to receiving the vaccine, but pregnant women were not studied in the vaccine trials, so there is no information about the use of the vaccine among this group of people. If you are currently pregnant, it is recommended that you discuss the vaccine with your care provider first. If you are breastfeeding, you can still have the vaccine. You do not need to stop breastfeeding. You should discuss all these options with your healthcare provider if you wish to receive the vaccine.

Where do I find more information about the COVID-19 vaccine?

For the latest updates on the vaccine distribution at Penn Medicine, please view the Penn Medicine COVID-19 website. For more information on the COVID-19 vaccine and cancer, view the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) website and the CDC website

To pre-register for the vaccine and find vaccination locations in your area, view your state and county websites:

 

It is important to remember that everyone needs to continue to follow the national and state guidelines on mask-wearing, social distancing, and other measures to keep you and everyone around you safe. If you have any additional questions, please contact your oncologist.

About This Blog

The Focus on Cancer blog discusses a variety of cancer-related topics, including treatment advances, research efforts and clinical trials, nutrition, support groups, survivorship and patient stories.

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