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Cancer and COVID-19 FAQs

Wednesday 20 July, 2022


It is understandable to feel anxious about COVID‑19 if you or your loved one has been diagnosed with cancer. 

If you are worried, have questions or need support, you can call our trusted and compassionate cancer nurses on 13 11 20, who can provide emotional support as well as practical tips for minimising the risk of infection during this time. 

More information

Download our free fact sheets and access additional cancer and COVID‑19 information and support on the following topics:

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COVID‑19 and cancer

Am I more likely to get COVID‑19 because I have cancer?

Cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, can lower the immune system. If you are currently undergoing cancer treatment or have a blood-related cancer such as leukaemia or lymphoma, your immune system may be weaker, which means your body may not be able to fight the virus as effectively as someone who is otherwise healthy and well.

If you have any  symptoms of COVID‑19 and are having cancer treatment, call your GP or treatment team straight away. Do not wait for symptoms to get worse. 

Where can I get antivirals and other COVID‑19 medicines?

Speak to your treatment team or GP about antivirals and other medicines. Most antiviral medicines need to be taken in the first five days of symptoms, so it is important to get an appointment quickly. If you can’t get an appointment quickly, you can attend a GP respiratory clinic so you are able to receive timely advice.

People with cancer are more likely to get very sick from COVID‑19. Antivirals and other medicines can help reduce your risks, even if you have already had COVID‑19 before. They can also improve your symptoms if you have COVID‑19, or catch it again. Some medicines are taken before catching COVID‑19, or catching it again. Others are taken after you have had a positive COVID‑19 test. Visit the Coronavirus Victoria  antivirals and other medicines page for more information.

How does COVID‑19 affect people with cancer?

Some types of cancer and their treatment increase the risk of getting COVID‑19, having a more severe illness and, unfortunately, dying from COVID‑19. Vaccinations provide the best protection against getting very sick with COVID‑19. It is important for all people with cancer to keep up to date with COVID‑19 and flu vaccinations.

Will I still receive the best care for my cancer type?

Clinical teams will always deliver the best care options available. At present, cancer treatments are scheduled largely as usual in Victoria. All standard treatments are still available and can be accessed in a timely manner as before COVID‑19.

Cancellation of blood tests and scans may be occurring because they may not be critical to your care at this point. The health service will coordinate rebooking of tests if a delay is deemed safe by your treating team. Sometimes, it may be okay to discontinue certain tests or scans if you were getting close to the end of the follow up period.

 

COVID‑19 vaccines

Should I get the vaccine?

Some types of cancer and their treatment increase the risk of catching COVID‑19 and having a more severe illness. Vaccinations provide the best protection against getting very sick with COVID‑19. It is important for all people with cancer to keep up to date with COVID‑19 and flu vaccinations.

The COVID‑19 vaccines teach your immune system to recognise and fight the virus that causes COVID‑19 infection. While it's important for all people to get the COVID‑19 vaccine, it's particularly important for people with cancer. Getting the COVID‑19 vaccine:

  • reduces your risk of getting sick with COVID‑19
  • reduces your risk of being admitted to hospital if you do get COVID‑19
  • helps to protect your friends, family and community by reducing the chance of spreading COVID‑19 to others.

If you have cancer, the decision about whether to have the COVID‑19 vaccine should be made in consultation with your healthcare team and will be based on the type of cancer you have, what treatment you are undergoing, your overall health and how your immune system is working.

If you do have the vaccine, it is still important to continue taking other measures to protect against COVID‑19 such as practising good hygiene and social distancing.

How many primary vaccine doses do I need?

Three primary doses of the COVID‑19 vaccine have been recommended by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) for severely immunocompromised people, which includes patients with blood cancer and most cancer patients on active therapy.

This is because people who are immunocompromised might not be fully protected by the regular two doses of a vaccine. The third dose is intended to maximise the level of immune response to as close as possible to the general population.  

Do I also need booster doses?

Booster doses are needed to keep you up-to-date with your COVID‑19 vaccinations. The  Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) recommends that all Australians continue to get booster doses in addition to any primary doses of the COVID‑19 vaccine, including people with a weak immune system.

Ask your doctor about the latest booster dose recommendations and your eligibility in line with the latest government advice.

What is the difference between a booster and third dose?

There is a difference between a booster and a third dose. A third dose is recommended to improve initial vaccine responses in people with a weak immune system who may have a lower level of response to two doses, while a booster dose is recommended when immunity declines with time. 

Which vaccine should I get?

There are different COVID‑19 vaccines available in Australia. The TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) has assessed the available vaccines and decided they are safe to use in Australia. Speak to your doctor and the staff at your vaccine appointment about which vaccine is right for your situation.

Are there side effects from the vaccine?

People with cancer are at no greater risk of side effects from the vaccines than anyone else.

Common side effects from the vaccine have typically been mild and short-lived – like pain or redness at the injection site. Up to half of all vaccinated people will experience some general side effects such as tiredness, headache, muscle aches and fever.

You should seek medical advice if, for example, you develop a fever, with shivering and sweating or if unexpected symptoms such as severe headache or chest pain appear or persist following vaccination.

Should I also get a flu vaccine?

It is important for people with cancer to have a flu vaccine. It is safe to get your flu vaccine at the same time as your COVID‑19 vaccine or booster. 

What happens if I've had an allergic reaction to a vaccine?

If you have had a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine in the past, or to a particular type of the COVID‑19 vaccine, you should discuss the type of reaction you had with your doctor. You may be referred to specialised vaccination clinics for further assessment and, if suitable, for vaccination under close supervision.

In the event of an emergency, please dial 000 for an ambulance.

Where can I get vaccinated?

The COVID‑19 vaccines are available in state-run vaccination centres, general practices and community pharmacies. Visit the Department of Health website for more information.

When you attend your vaccination appointment, you should bring:

  • your Medicare card or Individual Health Identifier
  • photo ID that shows your date of birth (e.g. Victorian driver’s licence)
  • proof of an underlying medical condition such as a letter from your treating specialist or GP, or otherwise complete the Eligibility Declaration Form.

I have blood cancer, should I get the vaccine?

People with a blood cancer diagnosis (myeloma, lymphoma or leukaemia) are at increased risk of complications from COVID‑19 infection. Vaccinations provide the best protection against getting very sick with COVID‑19. It is important for all people with cancer to keep up to date with COVID‑19 and flu vaccinations. Speak to your treatment team about teh best vaccine for your situation.

What is the recommendation if I've had a stem cell transplant?

For people who have had an autologous or allogeneic stem cell transplant, vaccination is recommended at least three months after your transplant. Even if you have been vaccinated for COVID‑19 prior to the transplant, vaccination with three primary doses as well as booster doses after your transplant is recommended.

What if I don't get the vaccine?

People with or who have had cancer who contract COVID‑19 are twice as likely to have severe symptoms and require hospital treatment. If you contract COVID‑19, and are currently receiving cancer treatment, this could mean your treatment is delayed or disrupted.

What happens if I've been advised I can't get the vaccine?

Your GP and treatment team will be able to give you the best advice for you, however, if you have been advised that you are unable to get the vaccine, it is likely they will recommend that you need to self-isolate as much as possible to keep you safe.

It is important for you and any close contacts, to continue taking  other protective measures against COVID‑19, including practising good hygiene and maintaining physical distancing.

Even though many people are vaccinated, am I more at risk?

How your immune system responds to the vaccine may be influenced by your own general health and your cancer treatment. We know from studies of COVID‑19 vaccine in patients with cancer that the level of response or protection from vaccination may be lower compared to people without cancer.

Even after receiving the vaccine, it is important for people affected by cancer and their close contacts to continue protective measures including physical distancing, hand hygiene and the use of masks. In addition, if you develop symptoms, early testing is important as there are treatments available that could help reduce the severity of infection.

Where can I get more information about the vaccine?

Where can I find vaccine information for specific cancer types?

If you’d like more information specifically about COVID‑19 vaccinations and the cancer you have been diagnosed with, please visit:

 

Vaccine safety

Is the COVID‑19 vaccine safe for people with cancer?

Studies of COVID‑19 vaccination in people with cancer have shown that it is safe and the rates of expected side effects from the vaccine are not higher in people with cancer compared to others.

How have the vaccines been developed so quickly?

These vaccines have been developed faster than ever before, but none of the steps in safety testing have been skipped. The difference was the testing stages were able to be overlapped, rather than conducted sequentially.

Given the scale of COVID‑19, there was significant global investment in the development process which meant that there were shortened wait times between testing, approval and manufacturing phases. The decision to approve the vaccines was made with all the same data about safety and effectiveness that goes into the development and approval of other vaccines.

Can the vaccine give me COVID‑19?

All vaccines have passed Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration’s assessment and approval processes that assess vaccine safety, quality, and effectiveness. They do not contain the live virus that causes COVID‑19 and therefore there is no risk of catching the infection from the vaccines.

Can the vaccine change your DNA?

mRNA is a piece of genetic code which tells our body to build a spike protein that helps our body fight COVID‑19 on exposure. It's just an instruction - it can't alter your DNA. The mRNA in the vaccine is destroyed by your body within hours of vaccination. 

mRNA technology has actually been in development for decades, and we’ll see it used for many new diseases and treatments in the future. 

 

Impact on cancer treatment

Will getting the vaccine interrupt my treatment?

While it is ideal to get vaccinated before starting treatment, a patient receiving cancer treatment can still safely get vaccinated. Your doctor will be able to discuss the timing of vaccination with you, as with some therapies it may be preferable to avoid vaccination during certain treatment periods. This is to avoid confusion around possible side effects and whether they have been caused by the vaccine or your cancer treatment.

Wherever possible, ask your doctor for a letter to take to your immunisation appointment stating that you’ve discussed your suitability for COVID‑19 vaccination.

Will the vaccine reduce the effectiveness of my treatment?

Based on how the vaccines work, we do not anticipate that the vaccines will reduce the effectiveness of cancer treatments.

The decision about when to receive a COVID‑19 vaccine should be made on an individual basis in consultation with your treating team. Timing depends on the type of cancer you have, the treatment you’re receiving and when it’s scheduled, as well as how your immune system is going.

For more information, visit the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation’s (ATAGI)  COVID‑19 vaccination decision guide for people with immunocompromise.

Is it safe to go into the hospital for treatment?

Health care settings are putting measures in place to reduce your risk of infection and ensure you are protected. For visitors, this may include temperature checks on entry, and in some cases, restrictions on the time and length of visiting. Health care providers also practise social distancing and strict hand hygiene.

Let your treating team know if you are feeling unwell. If you become unwell, going to hospital will be safer than staying at home. In an emergency, call Triple Zero 000 for an ambulance.

Do I need to get a COVID‑19 test before I go into hospital for treatment?

If you have a surgery or procedure scheduled, ask your medical team what the processes are around COVID‑19 testing and self-isolation prior to the day. If you have any concerns, talk to your treatment team.

Who will be with me in hospital if my condition deteriorates?

Exemptions to any existing rules for hospital visitors are allowed for people providing end of life support for a patient. Please discuss with your health service and treating team.

Rules on visitors are set to reduce the risk of spread of COVID‑19 infection to hospitals. The rules are set by the Victorian Chief Health Officer. Hospital staff, including nurses, doctors, allied and spiritual care will always be there to care for patients.

Why do my health professionals wear different PPE?

Wearing PPE is determined by the health service and depends on the level of risk in the area that health professionals work in. 

In settings where the risk for COVID‑19 exposure is higher, for example an Emergency Department, staff will put on PPE including gowns, masks and eye protection. In a lower risk area in the hospital, this may not be necessary.

Social distancing and hand washing remain very important and are used by all health professionals.

 

Impact on medical appointments

Is it safe to see my doctor?

Amidst public concern about the risk of COVID‑19, it is understandable that some Victorians may be anxious about visiting their doctor or attending follow-up appointments. While these may feel like uncertain times, regular check-ups, including follow up care, are important appointments to maintain between you and your doctor.

There is increasing concern that people with signs of cancer, and other health conditions, may not be contacting their GPs to discuss new symptoms. This delay could mean people present later with more complicated and progressed cancer, making treatment options more challenging.

Health professionals are doing all they can to ensure safety for their patients, and health care settings are putting measures in place to reduce your risk of infection and ensure you are protected.

If you are worried about any symptoms, we encourage you to contact your GP. In most situations these appointments can occur face-to-face, by phone or video.

What are my options if I can't see my doctor face-to-face?

While many appointments require a face-to-face meeting with your doctor, some can be conducted remotely and effectively  via telehealth. An initial conversation will help your doctor decide the appropriate next steps for you.

It is important to continue with your follow-up appointments, tests and scans. If you're concerned about your risk of COVID‑19 infection, speak to your doctors, as the timing of tests and scans often has flexibility without compromising your care. Some blood tests and scans can be arranged in centres closer to your home.

Let your doctor know if you feel anxious about attending your regular appointments and your risk of exposure to COVID‑19. You can also contact our cancer nurses on 13 11 20 to chat about any concerns you may have.

 

 

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