Cancer & Caregiving

What COVID-19 Vaccines Mean for Cancer Patients

Written By:
Feb. 11, 2021
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Written By: Sean Marchese, MS, RN,
February 11, 2021

With COVID-19 vaccines rolling out across the country, many cancer patients may be wondering in which distribution group they fall and where they can receive a vaccine.

Patients may also be confused by the large amount of information from different sources. In some cases, people may be hearing conflicting information about the vaccines.

Most importantly, mesothelioma patients and others with cancer should know where they can get vaccinated and what to expect during the process.

“I had my vaccine a week ago. My arm was sore for a little while, and I felt yucky for half a day or so. Nothing major,” said malignant pleural mesothelioma survivor Emily Ward. “Two or three days later, and I was okay.”

Where Can I Get a COVID-19 Vaccine?

Since the supply of vaccines is limited, each state has a distribution plan for its residents based on prioritizing groups of people. Once the vaccine availability is more extensive, the goal is for everyone to be vaccinated.

The best way to find out where to receive a COVID-19 vaccination is through your state’s health department. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has a public health directory for each city and state on its website.

Doctors and treatment centers will also have information on vaccine availability for their patients. People who are unsure about which locations have COVID-19 vaccines or when they will become available can also check with their local pharmacy or hospital for more details.

Both of the currently approved vaccines require a two-shot regimen:

  • The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires two doses, three weeks apart.
  • The Moderna vaccine requires two doses, four weeks apart.

Vaccination is not complete until a person has received both doses of the vaccine. There is currently not enough information that supports adequate protection against COVID-19 or the new variants after just one dose.

Who Is Eligible for a COVID-19 Vaccine?

Manufacturing large doses of the COVID-19 vaccine takes time, so the rollout prioritizes cancer patients and other at-risk individuals.

In December 2020, the CDC recommended that state health departments distribute the first phase of the vaccine across several groups, including:

  • Health care personnel (Phase 1a)
  • Long-term facility residents (Phase 1a)
  • People age 75 and older (Phase 1b)
  • People age 65 to 74 (Phase 1c)
  • People age 16 to 64 with high-risk medical conditions (Phase 1c)
  • Essential workers (Phase 1c)

Different states are at various stages of distribution within the current phase. With a limited supply, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices aims to minimize harm and maximize benefits by distributing the vaccine fairly.

The CDC is working with state and local jurisdictions to develop COVID-19 vaccination plans for their respective areas. As of Feb. 9, health professionals have administered over 42 million doses of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.

Some advocacy groups, such as the Lung Cancer Research Foundation, are working with health officials to prioritize cancer patients for vaccination. The COVID-Lung Cancer Consortium, which represents a global assembly of leaders in thoracic oncology, virology and immunology, wrote a statement urging officials to prioritize all patients with cancer.

Are COVID-19 Vaccines Safe for Cancer Patients?

Patients undergoing active cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy for mesothelioma, should always discuss any new therapy with their doctor, including vaccines. While both COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective for most people, there may be some contraindications in rare cases.

The CDC recommends immunocompromised people should receive the vaccine as long as their physician approves it. In patients with weaker immune systems, the vaccine may be less effective but could still provide some protection. Guidelines recommend the vaccine for cancer survivors as long as they have no contraindications to the vaccine ingredients.

Mesothelioma specialists and oncologists have experience providing vaccines to patients receiving treatment for cancer. Providing the vaccine between cycles of therapy can reduce the risks while maintaining the effectiveness of vaccination.

Side Effects of COVID-19 Vaccines

Like other vaccines, such as the flu vaccine, side effects are expected but are generally mild and short-lasting. The most common side effects last about one to three days and include:

  • Soreness at the injection site
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever

Side effects may be more noticeable after the second dose of the vaccine and may require extra rest. Severe side effects are rare but treatable. Cancer patients should be aware that vaccination can cause increased inflammation in the lymph nodes as your body works to produce antibodies.

On imaging tests, enlarged lymph nodes can affect accurate cancer measurements. Your doctor may recommend waiting a few weeks before the next scheduled exam. If possible, ask for your COVID-19 vaccine to be administered on the opposite side of your cancer diagnosis.

Some people may have heard conflicting reports about whether the COVID-19 vaccines affect fertility or if they’re safe while pregnant or breastfeeding. After extensive research, there is no evidence to indicate the COVID-19 vaccine affects reproductive health in any way, much like the flu vaccine.

Pregnant patients may experience severe complications after contracting COVID-19, making vaccination especially important in this population. Additionally, antibodies from the vaccine could benefit babies during breastfeeding, providing further protection.

Differences Between the COVID-19 Vaccines

The CDC has approved two vaccines for emergency use: Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. Other manufacturers, such as Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, are working to bring more options to the public.

The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech options are both mRNA vaccines that work like blueprints to help your body make antibodies against COVID-19. The vaccines don’t contain any living or dead parts of the virus, and it is impossible to develop the illness from the vaccine.

Both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are over 94% effective at preventing COVID-19 as well as mild to moderate symptoms. During research trials, none of the 75,000 participants died of COVID-19 complications after receiving the vaccine.

There is no significant difference in effectiveness between the two vaccines. The Moderna vaccine does not require special refrigeration and may be more available in rural areas than the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

What About COVID-19 Variants?

Viruses mutate frequently and develop differences over time. In viruses such as influenza, it requires creating a new vaccine every year.

There is currently limited information about the new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Two variants have become prominent in recent months: the U.K. and South African variants.

Ongoing studies are investigating the effectiveness of the vaccines against the variants. The U.K. variant has a higher transmission rate and can jump from person to person more efficiently. However, evidence suggests that the current vaccines will be effective against the U.K. variant.

Some research suggests the South African variant may be more resistant to vaccines, but the manufacturers can improve vaccines as they develop a better understanding of the virus.

What Should I Do After I Get the Vaccine?

It’s essential to continue following CDC guidelines after receiving the vaccine, including wearing a face mask, washing your hands and social distancing.

It takes some time for your body to develop the antibodies needed to protect you against COVID-19, and you may still be vulnerable for some time after the second vaccine dose.

There is also limited information on how well the vaccine prevents others from getting sick. It may protect you from getting the disease, but you might still spread the virus.

In general, the COVID-19 vaccines are some of the safest and most effective vaccines ever created. After you receive the vaccine, monitor yourself for any symptoms or changes in your health. Contact your primary care physician or mesothelioma treatment center if you have any questions or concerns about the vaccine.

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