COVID-19 has stricken the global community and proven that we were unprepared for any of it. However, the virus added yet another layer of fear and anguish for cancer patients, who are already carrying a heavy burden of medication and treatment. As high risk individuals, cancer patients were making careful choices as to whether or not they should even venture out into public view to get their prescriptions or see their oncologists. Their already compromised immune systems wouldn’t be able to handle a cold very well, let alone COVID-19. When the topic of vaccines finally entered their conversations, there are many that have expressed new fears as to whether or not they should consider getting them. However, new information is showing that cancer patients should talk with their oncologist to confirm if their immune systems are strong enough for the COVID-19 vaccine.
How COVID-19 Has Affected the Cancer Community
CURE Today, a cancer-focused publication, reported a JAMA oncology research letter that stated that 1 in 5 cancer patients are not participating in clinical trials for fear of COVID-19 exposure. Clinical trials are critical for the development of new cancer treatments and drugs, however with COVID-19 seemingly looming around every corner, many cancer patients didn’t want to show up at a hospital setting where their already immunocompromised systems might suffer in an environment known to have a high number of COVID-19 patients. But this is a double-edged sword topic. Published in Fred Hutch Research, a Lancer study showed that cancer patients die at three times the level of non-cancer patients when they get COVID-19. There is a real reason for fear about COVID-19 among those going through cancer treatments, and it seems to come down to the better-of-two-evils.Each patient is well-aware of the fact that science and the medical community are on a continual learning curve when it comes to COVID-19. The American Cancer Society has devoted pages and pages of helpful information for cancer patients, addressing many of their concerns and questions. Even with research and conversations with their oncologists, cancer patients are often skittish about the COVID-19 vaccines. While those with cancer were not included as part of the initial priorities for the vaccines, they are part of the high-risk category that is included with the second wave for vaccines. Each state is responsible for making the decision as to whether to follow the CDC (Center for Disease Control) guidelines on these vaccine priorities.
How Safe are the COVID-19 Vaccines for Those with Cancer?
This question doesn’t have a single answer as it is dependent upon the patient. It is recommended that each patient discuss whether or not they should get the COVID-19 vaccine with their oncologist. In “normal” times most physicians would make a general recommendation that vaccines shouldn’t be given to those patients undergoing radiation or chemotherapy treatments. The exception to this rule is the flu shot. The reason for this recommendation is that overall, vaccines need an immune system response to work properly and during these cancer treatments there might not be a sufficient response. Cancer as well as cancer treatments can weaken an immune system so that it has more difficulty battling viruses, bacteria, and germs. Vaccines are designed to assist an individual’s immune system to recognize specific diseases and infections and then fight them off.
Side Effects of COVID-19 Vaccines
Side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines are also dependent upon the individual. For cancer patients, these can be an alert, as they are already going through many types of side effects from medications and treatments. Some that get the vaccine experience few if any side effects, while others have one or a combination. In general, the side effects wane in just a few days.Common COVID-19 side effects can include:
- Swelling or pain at the site of injection
- A feeling of being tired
- Joint or muscle pain
One particular side effect that some experience is tender or swollen lymph nodes. For cancer patients, especially breast cancer patients, this can raise personal concern. However, the swelling or light tenderness in lymph nodes is actually the body’s immune system response. It shows that the vaccine is working with the body to develop the antibodies needed to fight off the virus. It takes from a few days to a few weeks for the lymph nodes to shrink back to normal, however, if this doesn’t happen within a few weeks, contact a doctor to talk about a next step.
COVID-19 Vaccines May Become Mandatory for Healthcare Visits
As more people around the country receive the COVID-19 vaccines the topic of mandatory vaccines for standard healthcare visits has come up. In order to return to a semblance of normal in the healthcare environments people will want to be assured that they can enter a doctor’s office with a sense of safety. While scientists believe COVID-19 will be with us for a number of years, visiting a doctor for a checkup, test, procedure, or treatment may require proof of COVID-19 vaccination. This has not become a requirement as of yet, but for those that are a high-risk patient, it will help to ease the stress and anxiety knowing that these policies are being considered. There are already some industries such as international flights and some in the hospitality/hotel world that are requiring vaccine proof, but if it expands into the healthcare vertical, cancer patients will have to make sure that they also have the vaccine.