What People With Cancer Should Know about the COVID-19 Vaccines

Jian Wu, RN, gives a COVID-19 vaccine to Timothy Evans, pulmonary function technologist.

MSK is putting together plans for how we may begin vaccinating our patients.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been especially difficult for people with cancer, their families, and caregivers. We understand many of you have questions about if and when you should get the COVID-19 vaccines

We are constantly reviewing the latest data on COVID-19 vaccines to make the best recommendations for our patients, personalized for your unique needs. Your safety is our top priority.

The supply of vaccine and rules for distribution change often. We are staying on top of the latest guidance so we can let you know when it’s your turn to be vaccinated. As we receive guidance from New York State, we will contact our eligible patients with more information about when they can get their vaccine. There is no need for patients to reach out to their doctors about scheduling an appointment at this time.

Our Chief Medical Epidemiologist Mini Kamboj answers key questions about what we know so far.

When will MSK begin offering vaccines to patients?

MSK is required to follow federal and New York State guidelines for distributing the vaccine.

In accordance with recently updated New York State guidelines, MSK is now offering COVID-19 vaccinations to patients age 65 and over who live in New York State and are currently in active treatment at MSK (defined as treatment on or after January 1, 2019). Supply is limited. Please do not call your doctor about getting vaccinated. We will contact you directly.

 Here are our next steps:

  • We will contact eligible patients via MyMSK, our patient portal, to see if they want to get the vaccine at MSK. We will follow up later to schedule an appointment.
  • Patients without a MyMSK account can visit my.mskcc.org. There’s also a video that discusses how to enroll here.
  • Your vaccination appointment is for you to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The specialized team of care providers in our vaccination clinic will not be able to talk with you about your cancer care. If you have any questions about your cancer care, please contact your primary MSK care team.

It is important to know that our supply of vaccine is currently limited. It may take some time before all patients who are eligible can be vaccinated. Federal and state guidelines are being updated frequently to expand the groups who are eligible, and you may have more options for getting vaccinated outside of MSK. That’s why it is important for you to check relevant state websites and mskcc.org regularly. We are staying on top of all developments and will do our best to keep you informed.

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Is the vaccine safe for people currently undergoing cancer treatment?

The initial studies testing the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines did not include people receiving treatment for cancer. That’s because those studies first needed to see if the vaccines were safe and effective in people with healthy immune systems. Those initial studies showed that the vaccine provides strong protection against COVID-19.

Mini Kamboj

Mini Kamboj

We believe the vaccines are safe. The question is whether they work as well in people having cancer treatment like chemotherapy and radiation. Some cancer treatments can reduce how well a person’s immune system responds. It’s possible that the vaccines might not be as effective in those patients. Even so, some protection is better than none.

As we develop detailed guidelines for vaccinating our patients, MSK experts are reviewing the studies and opinions of other major cancer research organizations, too. Every patient’s situation is unique, so you should always talk with your doctor about what’s best for you.    

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What about patients with severely weakened immune systems?

There is not a lot of information about how the vaccine works in patients with severely weakened immune systems, such as people who have received a stem cell transplant. We believe the vaccine will be safe for these patients, but it might not work as well during certain phases of cancer treatment. You should discuss the timing of getting a vaccine, as well as the risks and benefits, with your MSK care team. 

There are ongoing studies to learn more about how people with weakened immune systems respond to the vaccine. Rest assured that we are staying on top of the very latest information for our patients.  

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Should cancer survivors get vaccinated against COVID-19?

Yes. We believe the vaccine is safe, effective, and offers critical protection to keep cancer survivors in good health.  

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What are the side effects?

Some people have mild to moderate side effects, but they don’t last long — about one to three days. The most common side effects include soreness at the injection site, fatigue (feeling tired), headache, aches, and fever. These side effects are more common after the second dose, and you might need extra rest. Severe side effects are rare and treatable.

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Do I still need to follow safety guidelines even after I’ve been vaccinated?

It’s important to continue to wear a mask, wash your hands often, and practice social distancing.

This is especially true right after you get the vaccine, because it takes time for your immune system to respond and offer protection. These practices are very important even after you have developed immunity. The vaccine protects you from getting sick, but we still don’t know if people can carry and spread the virus after getting vaccinated.  

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Will the vaccine affect my cancer treatment?

There is no evidence that the vaccine will affect your treatment, but you should discuss any concerns with your doctor.

The most important thing to remember during this pandemic is that cancer patients should continue treatment. We have taken every precaution to make sure you can receive your therapy in a safe environment. Cancer care is essential care, and we don’t want our patients to put their life-saving treatments on hold.

January 22, 2021

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