Should Cancer Patients Get the COVID-19 Vaccine?

By: Jenna Hanrahan

COVID-19 vaccines are currently in short supply, but UPMC cancer experts say it is critical for cancer patients to get immunized when doses become available.

Dr. Stanley Marks

According to a recent paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, cancer — particularly leukemia, lymphoma and lung cancer — is associated with a significantly higher risk of COVID-19 complications.

“We are recommending that all our patients get the vaccines as soon as these shots are offered to them. It’s safe for those facing cancer,” said Dr. Stanley Marks, chairman, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

COVID-19 Vaccines in Cancer Patients: What Are the Side Effects?

Both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were tested on tens of thousands of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. The vaccines are about 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 and result in only minor side effects, such as soreness at the injection site, muscle aches, fever, chills and headache.

Neither specifically studied the vaccines’ effects on cancer patients, but  Marks said cancer patients are not at high risk for side effects from either vaccine, regardless of their specific cancer type or  treatment regimen.

Understanding mRNA Vaccines for Cancer Patients

In both vaccines, mRNA, or messenger ribonucleic acid,  is used  to instruct cells in the human body to make antibodies that fight the virus. The current vaccines do not contain the live virus that causes COVID-19.

While vaccines with live, dead or weakened viruses may cause infections in cancer patients and others with compromised immune systems, vaccines with mRNA do not pose the same risk.

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Dr. Robert Ferris

Distributing COVID-19 Vaccines to Cancer Patients

Those with cancer and underlying conditions are now in the first group to receive the vaccine based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but an exact timeframe for these vaccinations is not yet known due to limited vaccine supply.

UPMC will expand vaccine access to the general population as soon as possible, and UPMC Hillman Cancer Center will offer vaccines to its patients as they become available, said Dr. Robert Ferris, director, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. Patients with questions on these vaccines should begin the conversation with their doctor now.

“Once patients ask if they should get it, they start asking where they should get it,” Ferris said. “COVID-19 vaccines are a limited resource that will eventually get to everybody.”

He encourages patients who experience side effects from the vaccine to consult with their care team. While vaccines are an important step in the fight against COVID-19, patients must continue to practice preventive measures: masking, hand hygiene and physical distancing.