Published on February 26, 2021
Expert Explains Why COVID-19 Vaccine is Recommended for Most Cancer Patients
The American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) and 130 organizations urge President Biden to put people with cancer at the front of the line for the COVID-19 vaccine. President Biden aims to increase the number of people getting the vaccine to 3 million people per day. Currently, the seven-day average of vaccine doses given across the United States is 1.49 million doses a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). People with cancer need to be at the top of that list.
Many people are receiving the vaccines now, but you may still have lingering concerns or questions. So, we asked you to submit your questions regarding the vaccine and you delivered! Dr. Joshua Richter, Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology and Medical Oncology at Mount Sinai’s Tisch Cancer Institute, has answered your questions. [On March 5 we hosted a Facebook Live discussion on the COVID-19 vaccine. Watch below.]
Why should I get the vaccine? Isn’t my immune system up to the task?
Some people who get COVID-19 with no vaccine experience mild symptoms, and others, especially those with underlying conditions, can suffer greatly. Bottom line: getting the vaccine protects patients with cancer from experiencing a harsher form of COVID-19, or worse.
I heard that this vaccine changes my DNA? Is that true?
No. That is a myth.
What is mRNA?
Messenger mRNA, ribonucleic acid is a molecule essential in various biological roles in coding, decoding, regulation and gene expression. This technology is new, but not unknown. They have been studied for more than a decade.
I don’t want a live virus vaccine. How can I avoid that?
The COVID-19 vaccines are mRNA vaccines, and they do not contain a live virus and do not carry a risk of causing disease in the vaccinated person.
I have multiple myeloma. Should I get the vaccine?
Yes! There is evidence that these are all safe vaccines, no matter which company manufactured it. Essentially, I recommend almost all of my patients get the vaccine, except for those who have recently undergone an autologous stem-cell transplant, or those about to undergo transplant. These folks should wait between 60 and 90 days after the transplant to get the vaccine in order to get the best response.
Is there a recommended minimum platelet count before receiving a dose?
No, most people do not need a minimum platelet count before receiving a dose. If the patient has an extremely low platelet count, they should consult with their care team to take measures to make this as safe as possible.
Is there a test that can show if I have enough immunity after getting both shots?
Immunity is a complex concept because we’re talking about different types of immunity that aren’t regularly tested for. We can do some blood tests that show the big picture of your overall immunity response, but your clinical history gives us some insight as well (i.e., a recently transplanted patient may not have as robust of an immune response compared with someone who has been on maintenance therapy in remission for years).
What side effects should I expect?
Side effects vary from soreness at the injection site in the arm to body aches, fever and headaches. This is the immune system doing its job. But if you don’t have any side effects that doesn’t mean you are not developing immunity.
I got the vaccine. Does that mean I can’t get sick?
No, you can still get COVID-19, but you will get a much milder and less deadly version. Also, you can still pass the virus to other people, so it is important to continue social distancing and wearing a mask (maybe two) when you go out in public.
Will one dose of the vaccine offer any protection while I wait for the second dose?
Yes, in some cases patients have 50% immunity, but it varies from person to person. When the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were first tested, a relatively weak immune reaction was found within a few weeks after people received the first dose of the vaccine, followed by a strong reaction when people received a second dose. There is the potential need for a booster later in the year.
I’m on blood thinners, can I have the vaccine?
Yes, but the person administering the vaccine should know because there may be a small amount of bleeding from the vaccine. The CDC has a checklist of questions you should be asked before getting the vaccine.
Which vaccine protects against the new variants?
The jury is still out on this one while more data is collected, but we know that people who received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine have strong responses against the COVID-19 variants, suggesting that the vaccine will continue to protect against serious disease in the coming months.
I have lung cancer. Am I more at risk than others?
COVID-19 affects the lungs specifically, so it is very important that you get the vaccine. The most dangerous part of COVID-19 is when the person who is infected starts shedding the infection through sneezes and coughs. The vaccine increases the likelihood that you won’t have a bad case of COVID-19.
What should I know about allergic reactions?
If you have previously had a serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis, where your throat swells up) you may not be eligible for the vaccine at this time.
How does herd immunity work?
Herd immunity can only be achieved when enough people become immune to a disease to make its spread unlikely. As a result, the entire community is protected, even those who are not themselves immune or can’t get the vaccine. Herd immunity is usually achieved through vaccination, but it can also occur through natural infection. The United States has a long way to go, although the number of new cases is slowly starting to decline, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
I’m still not sure and I’ve been doing my own research and reading conflicting information. Where should I turn next?
Your team of oncology specialists. They are your best source for your specific health needs.
Having more information in your hands from credible sources can help you make the best decisions for yourself and your loved ones. Watch the Facebook Live Q&A (recorded Friday, March 5) with Dr. Richter and Patient Power’s Andrew Schorr, where they share the full story on the COVID-19 vaccine.
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1Answering COVID19 Questions. CDC.
2Livingston EH. Necessity of 2 Doses of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 Vaccines. JAMA Network. Feb. 3, 2021.
3COVID-19 and Multiple Myeloma. The International Myeloma Foundation.
4Understanding and Explaining mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines. CDC.
5Preventing the Spread of Coronavirus. Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School.
6WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard. World Health Organization.
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