COVID-19 Vaccines for Cancer Patients and Survivors: What We Know

February 25, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Nicolas C. Issa, MD

Oncologists at Dana-Farber and elsewhere are closely monitoring COVID-19 vaccine distribution and its impact on cancer patients.

Vaccination distribution will vary state by state. Based on the latest guidance we have received from the state of Massachusetts, we expect Dana-Farber’s initial supply of COVID-19 vaccine for patients to be very limited. We are working hard to place special focus on getting vaccines to our most at-risk patients, in compliance with the state’s rollout guidelines, as we receive allotments of the vaccine.

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

There is no reason to believe the COVID-19 vaccine will be any less safe for those with cancer than those without. For this reason, Dana-Farber recommends that both cancer survivors, and active patients on therapy, should receive the COVID-19 when it is made available to them.

Furthermore, it is also recommended all Dana-Farber transplant and cellular therapy patients strongly consider vaccination once 100 days have elapsed from transplant or cellular therapy.

If you are a Dana-Farber patient, we are hopeful that you may be able to receive a vaccine from the Institute. However, our vaccine supply is currently limited by the state of Massachusetts, so we are not yet able to offer vaccine appointments to all patients who are eligible under state guidelines. Instead, we are contacting smaller groups of eligible patients who are most at risk for complications from COVID-19 infection. We know this is frustrating and we are eager to expand vaccinations to more patients, but we cannot do so until we have adequate supply of vaccine from the state. 

If we identify you as eligible for a vaccine appointment at Dana-Farber, we will contact you by phone, email, text message, and Patient Gateway. If you have not yet heard from us and are eligible to receive a vaccine, we encourage you to schedule an appointment outside of Dana-Farber at vaxfinder.mass.gov. If you live outside of Massachusetts, learn how to sign up for a vaccine in your state.

If you are able to schedule a COVID-19 vaccination outside of Dana-Farber, we strongly encourage you to get the vaccine at that alternate site. Visit our COVID-19 patient vaccine page for the latest updates. Those who are not Dana-Farber patients should consult with their oncologist for more information.

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


Is a COVID-19 vaccine safe? Is it safe for cancer patients?

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.”

Oncology patients

It is believed that most oncology patients on active treatment will be able to, and should, 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.

At this point, there is limited information regarding how immunocompromised patients may respond to the vaccine. While it is believed the vaccine will be safe for these patients, its effectiveness is still unknown.

Beyond COVID-19, 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.

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.

Can I spread COVID-19 to someone else if I’ve received a vaccine?

Emerging evidence about whether vaccinated people can still spread COVID-19 to others looks good so far. In other words, early data suggests that vaccines keep you safe and keep people around you safe.

“Two recent studies show some pretty favorable results — one from the UK that found that two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine cut down by 86 percent someone’s chances of developing an infection that they could pass along, the other a study in Israel that found an 89.4 percent reduction (though it should be noted that the Israeli study has yet to be fully released),” notes Vox

Scientists hope to learn more soon. In the meantime, the CDC recommends continuing to follow best practices for preventing spread of the virus (including face masks, physical distancing, etc.). But remember: We’re learning more every day, and the data looks good. Dana-Farber recommends getting a COVID-19 vaccine when you can, considering how safe and effective they are.

How long does it take to become immune following complete vaccination?

It typically takes a few weeks for the body to build immunity following vaccination. Early research into the two vaccines currently available in the U.S. indicate that individuals will begin to build immunity to the virus 10 to 14 days following their first dose, with full immunity typically appearing seven to 14 days following the second.

Does the vaccine protect against emerging strains of SARS-CoV-2?

There is currently limited information regarding the effectiveness of FDA authorized COVID-19 vaccines against emerging strains of the virus. Early research indicates the vaccine may be more protective against some variants than others.

The discovery of emerging strains does not change the recommendations for vaccination, and people should not put off receiving the vaccine in the hopes of getting one that is potentially more effective against emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants.

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