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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.

Is CCS adopting a mandatory vaccination policy?

Yes. Effective November 8, 2021, all CCS staff as well as volunteers who work in our lodges, offices and with clients through our transportation program will be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they have a medical or religious exemption. The health and well-being of our staff, volunteers and the people we serve is our top priority and we must do everything we can to protect one another, those facing cancer and our broader communities. Vaccination is the most effective tool to reduce the risk of COVID-19. Learn more about our mandatory vaccination policy.

Can I get the COVID-19 vaccine if I have cancer?

The COVID-19 vaccine is safe for most people with cancer. Talk to your healthcare team about if you should receive the vaccine. They will be able to determine if the benefits outweigh the risks for you. They can also determine which of the approved COVID-19 vaccines is right for you, and the best timing of the first, second and a possible additional dose, based on your unique circumstance.

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.

Does my cancer treatment affect whether I can get the vaccine?

The University Health Network (UHN) is a healthcare and medical research organization in Toronto. They have provided more information on the COVID-19 vaccine and different types of cancer treatment: 
Chemotherapy

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.

Radiation therapy
People getting radiation therapy can get the COVID-19 vaccine. Radiation therapy does not seem to affect how well the vaccine works. People getting radiation therapy can get the vaccine at any time before, during or after treatment.
Immunotherapy
People getting immunotherapy (for example, checkpoint inhibitors) may be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine. If you get the vaccine, your cancer care team will need to watch you closely for any vaccine side effects. Talk to your oncologist about getting the vaccine.
Stem cell transplant or adoptive cell therapy
People getting stem cell transplants or adoptive cell therapy may have a weak immune system for a short time. A weak immune system may reduce how well the COVID-19 vaccine works. You may have to wait until your immune system recovers after treatment before getting the vaccine. Some people may also need to get the vaccine again at a later date. Talk to your oncologist about when you can expect to get the vaccine.
Immunosuppressive therapy
Whether people getting immunosuppressive therapy can get the COVID-19 vaccine depends on the type of therapy. If you are getting rituximab, it may reduce how well the vaccine works. Talk to your oncologist about when it is safe for you to get the vaccine. Immunosuppressive therapy may reduce how well the vaccine works. If it is safe for you to get the vaccine, your healthcare team will try to give you the vaccine at one of the following times:

• 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.
It takes time for your body to build up an immune response to protect you.

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.
 
Take the same steps to protect yourself when you go to get vaccinated as you do when you are in other indoor public spaces. Wear a mask, practise physical distancing as much as you can and use hand sanitizer.
Vaccines are an important public health measure for the COVID-19 pandemic. But even after people start to get the vaccine, everyone should continue to practise physical distancing, wash their hands and wear a mask.
COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. Health Canada ensures that all vaccines meet very strict safety and efficacy standards before they are approved for use. 
 
As with other vaccines, some people may develop mild side effects in the days after a dose. Most side effects will go away on their own.

The most common side effects from the COVID-19 vaccines are:
• fatigue (tiredness)
• headache
• 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.
 
There are currently no specific interactions listed for the COVID-19 vaccines. But it is important to tell your healthcare team about all the medicines you take, including any drugs, vitamins, minerals, natural supplements or alternative medicines.
If you have lymphedema or have had a lymph node dissection in one arm, you should get vaccinated in the other arm. People with lymphedema are at increased risk of infection and should avoid vaccinations in the affected arm. If you have lymphedema in both arms, your thigh can be used as an alternate injection site for the vaccine.

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.
 

Currently, 4 vaccines are authorized for use in Canada. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are approved for people 12 years of age and older. The AstraZeneca and Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) COVID-19 vaccines are approved for people 18 years of age and older.



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.

These are not new types of vaccines. Scientists have been researching and developing viral vector-based vaccines for about 30 years and mRNA vaccines for about 10 years. These are some of the reasons scientists were able to develop the COVID-19 vaccines so quickly: 
 
• 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. 
 
Find out more about how vaccines are developed.

 

Yes. If you have had COVID-19 you should get a vaccine after you recover from the virus. The vaccine trials included people who were infected with COVID-19 and the vaccines were found to be safe.

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?

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?

The COVID-19 vaccine will help make the world safer for everyone, including people with cancer and cancer survivors. We know that people with cancer may be at risk for more serious outcomes of COVID-19, which is why we are advocating to governments to make sure that Canadians with cancer are prioritized as vaccines roll out.

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.
 

Read our statement on vaccine prioritization for people with cancer.

What is CCS doing to advocate for people with cancer to receive the second dose of the vaccine according to the manufacturer’s schedule?

The timing of the vaccine doses for people with cancer is important. CCS is calling on governments to prioritize the vaccine for people with cancer and survivors. We are monitoring emerging evidence related to the protection provided by the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in people with cancer and the most effective timing of the second dose.

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?

We are sorry that you have to manage so much right now. We know how overwhelming cancer can be at the best of times, and the pandemic is adding further stress and emotional burden to many people across the country.

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?

If you are concerned about the vaccine rollout in your province or territory, you can add your voice to our efforts to bring about change. We have created a  toolkit for self-advocacy and we encourage you to lend your support and share your concerns.

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?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been working with government to ensure people with cancer are not forgotten during these unprecedented times. You can read about our work to support people with cancer during the pandemic here, including our guiding principles for all governments and health organizations to apply to their healthcare decision-making for COVID-19.

Is CCS partnering with other organizations to help people stay safe during COVID-19 and get vaccinated?

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.