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COVID-19 vaccines and cancer

For people with cancer


This webpage will give you information about:

This webpage is meant to give you general information about what is known about the vaccines right now. Please continue to talk to your health care team about your cancer and if the COVID-19 vaccine is right for you.

Last updated: January 28, 2021. The webpage may change as we continue to receive new information.


How do COVID-19 vaccines work?

Vaccines (also called immunizations or vaccinations) are used to help our immune system recognize and protect our body against certain infections.

Health Canada has approved 2 COVID-19 vaccines:

  • The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is for people 16 years of age and older. It is given in 2 doses.
  • The Moderna vaccine is for people 18 years of age or older. It is given in 2 doses.

These vaccines have genetic material in them called messenger RNA (mRNA). Cells in our body make mRNA all the time to help our body function. After we get the vaccine, the mRNA tells the cells in our body to make more protein. The protein gets our immune system to start making antibodies (cells that fight infection). These antibodies will protect us from the COVID-19 virus if it enters our body in the future.


Why is it important to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

People with cancer may have a higher risk of getting COVID-19. If a person with cancer gets COVID-19 there is a higher chance that they will get very sick. People with cancer also have a higher risk of death from COVID-19. For these reasons, most people with cancer should get the COVID-19 vaccine to protect themselves.

Which people with cancer are most at risk?

While any person with cancer may be at higher risk of getting very sick if they get COVID-19, the following groups are known to be at higher risk:

  • People with lung cancer or cancers of the blood like leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma
  • People who were diagnosed with cancer in the last year
  • People with cancer who are 65 years or older
  • People who have had a stem cell transplant in the last 6 months
  • People getting treatments that weaken the immune system like chemotherapy and targeted therapies (for example, immunotherapy)

Each person’s cancer and cancer treatment are different. Talk to your health care team about the COVID-19 vaccine and whether it is right for you.


Is the vaccine safe?

How do I know the vaccines are safe?

Health Canada makes sure that vaccines meet very strict safety and efficacy (how well something works) standards before they are approved for our use. The COVID-19 vaccines went through the same amount of safety checks as any other vaccine or medicine.

To read more about how the vaccines were approved for use, go to sunnybrook.ca/vaccine.

Can I get COVID-19 from taking the vaccine?

No, it is not possible to get COVID-19 from taking the vaccine. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do not contain the live virus that causes COVID-19.

Can I spread the virus to other people even after I get the vaccine?

Yes. The COVID-19 vaccine will reduce the chance of you getting really sick from the COVID-19. But the vaccine may not protect you from getting infected with the COVID-19 virus. This means that there is still a chance you could get COVID-19 but have no symptoms of the disease.

Is the vaccine safe for people with cancer?

Yes, the vaccine is safe for most people with cancer.

Some cancer treatments like chemotherapy, radiation or immunotherapy can affect the immune system. Some people getting cancer treatment may not get as much protection from the vaccine as other people. But any amount of protection will keep you safer than none.

It is unknown at this time if some people with cancer will need to get the vaccines again after they finish treatment. More studies are needed to know how well the vaccine works for people with cancer.

Please talk to your oncologist (cancer doctor) before getting the vaccine if you:

  • Have recently been diagnosed with cancer
  • Are getting treatment now
  • Have had recent treatment

Chemotherapy »

People getting chemotherapy can get the COVID-19 vaccine. But because chemotherapy slows down or stops your immune response, this may reduce how well the vaccine works. Your cancer doctor may change your treatment so that the vaccine can work better.

Talk to your cancer doctor before getting the vaccine.


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 or during treatment.


Immunotherapy »

People getting immunotherapy (for example, checkpoint inhibitors) may be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine. If you get the vaccine, your health care team will need to watch you closely for any vaccine side effects.

Talk to your cancer doctor before getting the vaccine.


Stem cell transplant or adoptive cell therapy »

People who are getting stem cell transplants or adoptive cell therapy may have a weakened immune system for a short amount of time. A weakened 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 patients may also need to get the vaccine again at a later date.

Talk to your cancer doctor if you can get the vaccine.


Immunosuppressive therapy »

Some people getting immunosuppressant therapy can get the COVID-19 vaccine. This will depend on the type of therapy you are getting. Immunosuppressant therapy may reduce how well the vaccine works. But if it safe for you to get the vaccine, your health care team will try to give you the vaccine:

  • Before you start immunosuppressive therapy, or
  • During treatment, when your immune system is not at its lowest level.

Talk to your cancer doctor before getting ANY vaccine, including the COVID-19 vaccine.

Can I still get the COVID-19 vaccine if I already had COVID-19?

Yes. People who have COVID-19 can get the vaccine after they recover from the virus. The vaccine trials included people who had been infected with COVID-19 and the vaccine was found to be safe.

Experts do not know how long antibodies last after someone has had COVID-19. The vaccine may help your body fight a future COVID-19 infection. Talk to your cancer doctor about when it is safe to get the vaccine, after you recover.

Can I get the COVID-19 vaccine if I have symptoms of COVID-19?

If you have any symptoms of COVID-19, wait to get the vaccine. Talk to your health care team about your symptoms and getting a COVID-19 test. Your health care team will tell you when it is safe to get the vaccine.


Possible side effects from the vaccine

As with other vaccines, some people may get mild side effects in the days after. Most side effects will go away on their own.

Learn more about the possible side effects

The most common side effects from the mRNA vaccines are:

  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Pain where you got the shot (on your upper arm)
  • Redness and swelling where you go the shot (on your upper arm)
  • Joint pain
  • Mild fever
  • Swollen glands (this happens less often)

Serious side effects from the vaccine are rare. If you get any of these side effects within 3 days of getting the vaccine, call your health care team right away or go to your nearest emergency department. These serious side effects include:

  • Hives
  • Swelling of the face or mouth
  • Trouble breathing
  • Very pale colour in your face or serious drowsiness (feeling very sleepy)
  • Fever over 40 degrees Celsius or 104 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Convulsions (muscle movement you cannot control) or seizures
  • Numbness

If you have serious allergies or have had a serious allergic reaction to other vaccines, drugs or food, talk to your cancer doctor before you get the COVID-19 vaccine.


How well will the COVID-19 vaccine work?

In a large study where people got 2 doses of the vaccine, the vaccine worked well to prevent 95 percent (95 out of 100) people from getting sick from the virus. Experts think that most people who get both doses of the vaccine will be very well protected.

Some people getting cancer treatment may not get as much protection from the vaccine as other people. But any amount of protection will keep you safer than none.

It is unknown at this time if some people with cancer will need to get the vaccines again after they finish treatment. More studies are needed to know how well the vaccine works for people with cancer.

How long will protection from the vaccine last?

At this time, we do not know how long the vaccine will last. Since this is a new vaccine, it will need to be studied over time to see how well it works.

How will I get the vaccine?

COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are given in the upper arm muscle just like a flu shot.

How many shots of the vaccine do I need?

Current mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna require 2 shots.

Important: The 2 mRNA vaccines cannot be mixed. If your first shot is the Pfizer vaccine, your second shot needs to be Pfizer. The same applies with the Moderna vaccine.

These are the 2 vaccines that are currently approved by Health Canada. There may be other COVID-19 vaccines available in the future that only require 1 shot.

How soon does the vaccine start to work?

It takes time for your body to build up an immune response to protect you. The mRNA vaccines require 2 doses. The vaccine may start working after the first dose but you will need the second dose for full protection. If you skip the second dose, you could still be at risk of getting sick from the COVID-19 virus.


If the vaccine is safe for me, when will I get the COVID-19 vaccine?

We are following the directions of the Ministry of Health for the rollout of the vaccine. For the most up-to-date information, please go to sunnybrook.ca/vaccine.

Do I still have to wear a mask and practice physical distancing after I get the vaccine?

Yes. You still need to wear masks and practice physical distancing until a large number of people get the vaccine. In Ontario, the vaccinations will happen over the next few months. It is also unknown at this time whether the vaccine provides long-term protection from COVID-19.


Other vaccine information

Can I still get a flu shot if I have not had one yet?

Yes. The flu and the COVID-19 virus are not the same thing. For people with cancer and weakened immune systems, the flu can be serious and sometimes life-threatening (cause death).

  • People with cancer should get a flu shot that has an inactive (dead) flu virus. Most flu shots do not contain the live virus.
  • Do not get the flu vaccine through the nose as nasal spray. These nasal sprays contain live flu virus. People with cancer and those in the same household, should not get the nasal spray flu vaccine.

Your health care team will tell you when to get the flu shot depending on your cancer type and treatment.

Can I still get a flu shot if I have COVID-19?

If you have COVID-19 or think you may have the virus, wait to get your flu shot. This keeps other people safe from being exposed to COVID-19.

Can I get other vaccines at the same time I get the COVID-19 vaccine?

No. You should not get other vaccines at the same time you get the COVID-19 vaccine. Do not get other vaccines until at least 28 days after you get the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

If you get a vaccine before the COVID-19 vaccine, wait 14 days before you get the COVID-19 vaccine.


For more information

Talk to your health care team for more information about the COVID-19 vaccines. We also have resources for you at sunnybrook.ca/vaccine.


The information above has been adapted from “Covid-19 Vaccines and Cancer” (2021), with permission from Cancer Education, UHN Patient Education.