Cancer and COVID-19 vaccines
Information about COVID-19 vaccines for people with cancer is evolving. You may have questions and feel uncertain, frustrated or overwhelmed as vaccines roll out across Canada. At the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS), we’re working to stay up to date with the latest information and recommendations for people with cancer and survivors. We are reviewing research and guidance regularly so that we can continue to keep you informed. We will keep this page updated with new information as we receive it.
Can I get the COVID-19 vaccine if I have cancer?@(Model.HeadingTag)>
Vaccines work by stimulating the immune system to produce antibodies to fight a disease. You may be immunosuppressed (have a weak immune system) due to cancer or its treatment. Currently, the COVID-19 vaccine is offered to people who are immunosuppressed and who meet the required age for use. But the vaccine may not be able to stimulate your immune system well enough to protect against COVID-19.
Not everyone with cancer is immunosuppressed. Talk to your healthcare team for more information.
People getting chemotherapy can get the COVID-19 vaccine. But because chemotherapy suppresses (stops or slows down) your immune response, it may reduce how well the vaccine works. Your oncologist (cancer doctor) may adjust your treatment to allow the vaccine to work better. Talk to your oncologist about the vaccine and your treatment plan.
• before you start immunosuppressive therapy
• during treatment when your immune system is not at its lowest level
Talk to your oncologist before getting any vaccine, including the COVID-19 vaccine.
If you get a vaccine that requires 2 doses, you will have some protection after the first dose. You need the second dose for full protection.
If you get a vaccine that needs just one dose, it takes at least 2 weeks for the vaccine to protect you.
Depending on cancer type and treatment, some people may not get as much protection from a vaccine as other people. But any amount of protection will keep you safer than none. We don’t know yet if some people with cancer will need to get a vaccine again after they finish treatment. More studies are needed to know how well the vaccines work for people with cancer.
The most common side effects from the COVID-19 vaccines are:
• fatigue (tiredness)
• muscle aches
• pain where you got the vaccine
• redness and swelling where you got the vaccine
• joint pain
• mild fever
• swollen glands (this happens less often)
If you get a vaccine that has 2 doses, these side effects are more likely to happen after the second dose.
In either case – if you have any lymphedema or have had a lymph node dissection – make sure you tell the people working at the vaccination site.
There are 2 types of approved COVID-19 vaccines: mRNA vaccines and viral vector-based vaccines. Neither vaccine type uses the live virus that causes COVID-19.
COVID-19 mRNA vaccines teach our cells how to make the spike protein on the COVID-19 virus that will trigger an immune response. Once triggered, our body then makes antibodies to help fight the infection if the real virus enters our body in the future. Find out more about mRNA vaccines for COVID-19.
Viral vector-based vaccines use a harmless virus as a delivery system. The vector virus used is not the virus that causes COVID-19. Once injected into the body, the virus contained within the vaccine produces the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. Through this process, the body is able to mount a strong immune response against the spike protein without exposing you to the virus that causes COVID-19. Find out more about viral vector-based vaccines for COVID-19.
The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are both mRNA vaccines. The AstraZeneca and Janssen COVID-19 vaccines are both viral vector-based vaccines for COVID-19. Talk to your healthcare team about which vaccine is best for you.
• The COVID-19 virus is similar to other viruses. Researchers already knew a lot about these types of viruses.
• Scientists around the world started to work on the vaccines right away when the COVID-19 virus was first found.
• Scientists around the world shared information with each other.
• Researchers were able to sign up a large number of people in clinical trials very quickly to test the vaccines. For example, over 200,000 people in the UK took part in clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines.
Experts do not know how long antibodies last after someone has had COVID-19. A vaccine may help your body fight a future COVID-19 infection. Talk to your healthcare team about when you should get a vaccine after you recover.
How is the vaccine being rolled out in my province or territory? When should I get my first and second doses?@(Model.HeadingTag)>
Provinces and territories are rolling out vaccines differently. Some governments are recommending that people with cancer receive the COVID-19 vaccine at the dose interval according to manufacturer’s schedule. You can review your province or territory’s vaccine plan and contact them with your questions or concerns. You can also talk to your healthcare team about the ideal timing of doses for you.
What is CCS doing to advocate for people with cancer to be prioritized to receive the first dose of the vaccine?@(Model.HeadingTag)>
CCS strives to be the voice for Canadians affected by cancer. We have asked governments to:
• clearly identify when people with cancer and survivors will be vaccinated
• prioritize people with cancer and survivors with others who are at risk of more severe disease, and ensure that they have access to both the first and second doses of the vaccine before the general population
• support more research and monitoring of the outcomes of COVID-19 vaccines for people with cancer and survivors
• empower healthcare providers to determine the best timing of the first and second doses for their patients based on their unique circumstances
We will continue to advocate for important issues facing Canadians affected by cancer, which include timely access to vaccines for high-risk and vulnerable populations. We will also continue to call on governments to make information more accessible and broadly known.
What is CCS doing to advocate for people with cancer to receive the second dose of the vaccine according to the manufacturer’s schedule?@(Model.HeadingTag)>
Healthcare providers should be empowered to determine the best timing for the second dose based on the unique circumstances of their patients. We are working to ensure that people with cancer are prioritized to receive the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine before the general population. We are also calling for continued tracking and assessment so that we know for the future what the ideal timing is for people with cancer. More data will help us better understand the impact of delayed second doses for people living with cancer and survivors.
In April 2021 we sent a letter with our vaccination program concerns to all provincial governments. We also presented the broader impacts the pandemic has on cancer care to the federal Standing Committee on Health. In June 2021 we sent a joint letter with other health organizations to the federal minister of health. We are committed to continuing this advocacy at the provincial and federal levels to ensure governments are aware of the concerns we’re hearing from Canadians affected by cancer and ensure they are prioritized during the vaccine rollout. People with cancer cannot afford to wait.
Through our helpline and online community, we have heard from many Canadians that they are concerned with the timing of their second dose and are having trouble navigating the system. We are quickly bringing these concerns to the decision-makers who can effect change.
I need help with a personal situation or unique circumstance related to cancer and the pandemic. How can CCS help me?@(Model.HeadingTag)>
We have free and confidential services available to help you find community and connection from the comfort of your home. You can connect with us and others across the country through CancerConnection.ca or call our toll-free Cancer Information Helpline at 1-888-939-3333. We also have cancer and COVID-19 resources available.
I have concerns about the vaccine rollout. How can I make my voice heard?@(Model.HeadingTag)>
Sharing your concerns directly with your elected officials is one of the best things you can do to hold them accountable and ensure they know the vaccine rollout is important to their constituents. You can find your local representative in our key contacts list.
We also have a dedicated volunteer group for advocacy called CCS Voices For Change. You can sign up to get more information and help us support people with cancer through the pandemic.
What is CCS doing to advocate for people with cancer during the pandemic?@(Model.HeadingTag)>
Is CCS partnering with other organizations to help people stay safe during COVID-19 and get vaccinated?@(Model.HeadingTag)>
CCS has partnered with 19 To Zero, a group of academics, public health experts, behavioural economists and creative professionals that are dedicated to promoting safe behaviour and vaccinations during COVID-19. CCS and 19 To Zero are united against COVID-19 and know that vaccinations save lives.
Find out more about 19 To Zero.