Vaccines for Cancer Patients and Survivors: What We Know

December 23, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Nicolas C. Issa, MD

Key Takeaways:

  • Vaccines are a safe and effective way to prevent you from getting sick from various diseases and viruses.
  • The current hope is that most oncology patients on active treatment will be able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Based on evidence from flu vaccinations, the data suggests that patients with cancer would be able to mount some level of protective immune response, though a number of factors may affect the level of response. Additional research on effectiveness and safety for these patients is ongoing.
  • It is believed both cancer survivors, and those who have not received immunosuppressive therapy for more than several months, will be able to mount a successful immune response to the COVID-19 vaccine. However, more information is needed.
  • Dana-Farber is monitoring developments in the COVID-19 vaccine process extremely closely. Care teams remain sources of support and information for patients who may have questions during this stressful time; keep in mind that some questions remain to be answered.

Are you up to date on your vaccines? It’s a seemingly simple question, but it is very important. Vaccines are one of the most convenient and safest preventative care measures available, and staying up to date on your vaccinations (such as the flu vaccine) helps prevent yourself from getting sick.

There are many questions surrounding COVID-19 vaccines, which are in various stages of development and approval in the United States. Any vaccines that will be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), even with an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), will have to meet an extremely high safety standard, and oncologists at Dana-Farber and elsewhere will be closely monitoring vaccine development and its impact on patients.

[For the latest information about COVID-19 vaccines, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.]

How do vaccines work?

Traditional vaccines use a weakened or killed version of the same germ, virus, bacteria, or toxin that causes the disease. For example, the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine contains three viruses, but the germs in the vaccine have been manipulated and weakened to the point that they will not make you sick when the vaccine is given. Instead, the vaccine recreates the exposure process, allowing your body to ultimately build up immunity to the disease without having to get sick first. If someone has achieved immunization, it means they have received the vaccine and their body has created the necessary antibodies to effectively fight it.

Not all vaccines are 100% effective, meaning a person may still be vulnerable to the disease even if they’ve received the vaccine. This is especially true for those whose immune system is not totally functional as a result of a drug or particular treatment, such as chemotherapy.

Part of what makes vaccines a powerful tool is that they can help prevent you from getting a disease, rather than treating it after you’re already sick. However, immunity can wear off as you age, so staying up to date on your vaccinations is important.

In addition, getting vaccinated (especially if you are around or work with high-risk individuals) helps you not only keep yourself safe, but also reduces the risk that those around you could get infected too.

If you’re unsure whether you should be vaccinated, work with a doctor or licensed medical professional to determine which vaccinations you’ve received and which ones, if any, you might still need. If you’re unsure which vaccinations you’ve already received, you can also contact former doctors and request your immunization records. If your records are unavailable, your doctor can perform a test for evidence of immunity, whether from a prior vaccination or an infection.

If you have any other specific vaccine-related questions, be sure to bring them to a licensed medical professional.

Are vaccines generally safe? Are they safe for cancer patients?

All vaccines in the United States are approved by the FDA for safety and effectiveness before they are licensed. Typically, the FDA spends years testing vaccines through clinical trials to determine if a vaccine is safe, how the immune system reacts to it, what dose to administer, and other factors.

It is generally recommended that cancer patients do not receive vaccines if they are currently undergoing chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or radiation therapy, except for the flu shot. Vaccines need an immune system response to work properly, and patients undergoing treatment may have a weakened immune system. Infections are also possible if those with weakened immune systems are administered a vaccine with a live virus.

The current hope is that most oncology patients on active treatment will be able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Based on evidence from flu vaccinations, the data suggests that patients with cancer would be able to mount some level of protective immune response, though a number of factors may affect the level of response. Additional research on effectiveness and safety for these patients is ongoing.

If you have specific questions regarding any vaccine, specifically in regard to how it pertains to your cancer care, be sure to speak with your care team.

Will a COVID-19 vaccine be safe?

In developing a COVID-19 vaccine, the FDA established a new, rigorous process to determine the safety and effectiveness of each vaccine candidate. Vaccines that are made available in the United States by approval, or emergency use authorization, have met this high safety and effectiveness standard.

Furthermore, once a vaccine is authorized or approved, it is continuously monitored for any adverse events (such as side effects). If something abnormal is detected, experts will quickly study it further to see if it’s a true safety concern. This helps ensure the benefits outweigh any potential risks for individuals who receive the vaccine.

Finally, each batch of every vaccine is tested for quality and safety to ensure that the vaccine works like it is supposed to, and that it is not contaminated with certain ingredients used during production or outside germs.

“The effectiveness of initial COVID-19 vaccines exceeded the expectations of many experts, and all vaccine candidates must meet the gold standard for safety. I’m optimistic that once they are widely available, vaccines can finally start to control this pandemic,” explains Dana-Farber President and CEO, Laurie H. Glimcher, MD. “And while there is light at the end of the tunnel, months remain until enough people will have the immune protection of a vaccine. Our hope for a better year ahead must be combined with sustained vigilance today.”

COVID-19 vaccines for cancer patients and those out of active treatment

While more information is still needed as to how a COVID-19 vaccine will affect individuals diagnosed with cancer, it is believed both cancer survivors, and those who have not received immunosuppressive therapy for more than several months, will be able to mount a successful immune response to the COVID-19 vaccine.

[Learn more: What does it mean to be immunocompromised?]

Dana-Farber experts are actively working to learn how, or if, these vaccines will impact patients. Dana-Farber is also working with federal and state officials to help guide further decisions about the virus, including distribution plans for patients and staff, including caregivers.

Throughout vaccine distribution, Dana-Farber will continue to proactively ensure that patients, families and staff remain safe and protected. Learn more about measures the Institute is taking, including face masks, physical distancing, frequent disinfecting, and more.

Remember: Oncologists, nurses, and other professionals at Dana-Farber are sources of support and information for patients who have questions during this stressful time. Dana-Farber will also continue to provide information as soon as it is available.

For the latest information on COVID-19, talk to your care team or visit the Dana-Farber website.