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Cancer and COVID-19 FAQs

It is normal and understandable that you might feel anxious about contracting COVID-19. If you are feeling anxious, have questions or need support, please remember that Cancer Council’s information and support line is available on 13 11 20 during business hours.

Our specially trained team of nurses can provide emotional support as well as practical tips for minimising the risk of infection during this time. We will also be updating our website frequently with new information, so please keep checking back.

Helpful cancer and COVID-19 resources

Cancer and COVID-19 vaccination

With Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination program now underway, there are many questions being raised by patients, families and carers affected by cancer. We've developed a fact sheet with the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre to address some of these questions about the COVID-19 vaccines.

Download vaccination fact sheet

Your COVID-19 action plan

If you test positive to COVID-19, it is important to let your treating team know as soon as possible, as you may be eligible for COVID-19 treatments. You might also need to discuss changes to your treatment. We've created a COVID-19 action plan to help you prepare for COVID-19, learn more about testing, and understand what to do if you test positive.

Download COVID-19 action plan

 

COVID-19 and cancer

Am I more likely to contract COVID-19 because I have cancer?

Cancer treatment, for example chemotherapy, 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 as effectively fight the virus as someone who is otherwise healthy and well.

As such, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms of COVID-19 and to call your GP or cancer specialist if you are concerned. Healthdirect Australia has developed a COVID-19 Symptom Checker, an online self-guided tool to help people find out if they need to seek medical help.

How does COVID-19 affect people with cancer?

Some types of cancer and their treatment increase the risk of contracting COVID-19, having a more severe illness and unfortunately dying from COVID-19. Vaccination against COVID-19 is therefore highly recommended.

 

COVID-19 vaccines

How many primary vaccine doses do I need?

Three primary doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been recommended by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) for severely immunocompromised people aged 12 and over, which will include people with active cancer. 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.

People aged 12 years and over who have received a second dose more than two months ago should receive a third dose as soon as possible.

Do I also need a booster?

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) recommends that all Australians aged 18 years and over get a booster, this includes people with a weak immune system. If you have a weak immune system you will need three primary doses and a booster dose. 

What is the difference between a booster and third dose?

Although the same vaccines are used, 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. 

There is strong evidence that a booster dose improves protection against the Omicron variant. This is why all Australians aged 18 years and over, including people with a weak immune system, are encouraged to get a booster three months after their last dose, in line with the latest government advice.

Who is eligible for a third dose?

With a lower response to vaccination, it is recommended that people aged 12 years and over who are severely immunocompromised get three doses of COVID-19 vaccine to provide the best protection.

Generally, this affects anyone who is currently on active treatment such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and targeted therapy that leads to immunosuppression, but excludes many people on immunotherapy, as your immune system may not be as severely affected.

While this will likely be most people with cancer on active treatment, not all people affected by cancer will need a third dose. To check your eligibility, speak with your treating team.

When should I have the third dose?

The recommended spacing for the third dose is at least two months after the second dose of the vaccine. A minimum interval of four weeks may be considered in exceptional circumstances (i.e., you expect your immune system to be further weakened due to upcoming cancer treatment, or because of increasing outbreaks of COVID-19).

Your doctor will be able to discuss timing of vaccination with you, or if you’d like to speak with a cancer nurse, please call us on 13 11 20.

What vaccine will be provided for third doses?

Both mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) have been approved as third doses. Moderna, and now Pfizer, are offered as the third dose vaccine throughout state Victorian vaccination centres and can be accessed via walk ins at selected sites.

Should I get the COVID-19 vaccine?

The COVID-19 vaccines teach your immune system to recognise and fight the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. While it is important for all people to get the COVID-19 vaccine, it is 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 vaccination should be made in consultation with your healthcare team and will be based on what 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 physical distancing.

Which vaccine should I get?

There are currently three COVID-19 vaccines available in Australia – Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna. All vaccines have passed Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration’s assessment and approval processes that assess vaccine safety, quality and effectiveness. All individuals should follow Australia-wide advice on which vaccines to take, based on their age and medical history.

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 and muscle aches and pain or fever. You should seek medical advice if, for example, you develop a fever, accompanied by shivering and sweating or if unexpected symptoms such as severe headache appear or persist beyond the first three days following vaccination.

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.

I've been advised I can't get the vaccine. What will this mean for me?

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 continue 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 being vaccinated, am I more at risk?

It is normal to feel anxious and concerned about what COVID-19 means for you. Your GP or treating team will be able to give you the best advice for you however, even when vaccinated, it’s still possible to transmit the virus to others. So it’s important to continue to follow advice regarding mask-wearing and physical distancing to keep yourself and others safe.

If your GP or treating team inform you that you do not need to reduce your contact with others, following the government’s recommendations will still be essential in helping to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Where can I get more information about the vaccine?

 

Vaccine safety

How have the vaccines been developed so quickly, and does it mean they're unsafe?

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 vaccines 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. 

What about long-term effects?

Over 9 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been given worldwide. Countries including Australia have strong safety monitoring systems that continually monitor for any unexpected side effects. The same type of systems are used to monitor long term or unexpected side effects of medications including cancer treatments.

The potential long-term effects of COVID-19 infection are much more worrying. ‘Long COVID’ can occur in young people, people who have mild or asymptomatic infections, and there can be complications affecting all body systems – and that’s a greater cause for concern. For more information about COVID-19 and young people visit the Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne website.

Is it safe to get the third dose?

All three 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.

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 the vaccine in patients with cancer that the level of response or protection from the standard two doses may be lower compared to people without cancer. Therefore, it’s particularly important for people with cancer who are immunocompromised to receive a third dose to bring you up to the level of protection that is as close as possible to the general population. To check your eligibility, speak with your treating team.

 

Cancer and COVID-19 vaccines

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.

Will getting the vaccine interrupt my cancer treatment?

While it is ideal to get vaccinated before starting treatment, a person receiving cancer treatment (chemotherapy, radiotherapy) can still safely get vaccinated. Your doctor will be able to discuss 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.

Will getting the vaccine reduce the effectiveness of my cancer 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 the vaccine effective for people with cancer?

How your immune system responds to the vaccine may be influenced by your own general health, your type of cancer and your cancer treatment. Studies of COVID-19 vaccination in people with cancer show that the level of response or protection from vaccination may be lower compared to people without cancer after two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

To further protect patients, recent advice from ATAGI is for patients with cancer on most types of active therapy to receive a third dose for increased protection. The COVID-19 vaccines support your immune system to recognise and fight COVID-19 so it remains an important step to take.

Even after receiving the vaccine, it is important for people affected by cancer and any close contacts, to continue taking other protective measures against COVID-19, including practising good hygiene and maintaining physical distancing. 

More information on COVID-19 vaccines for people with cancer is available from  Cancer Australia. If you have any concerns about the vaccine, talk to your treatment team.

Where can I find vaccine information for specific cancer types?

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

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. Vaccination against COVID-19 is therefore highly recommended.

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

For patients who have had an autologous or allogeneic stem cell transplant, vaccination is recommended at least three months after your transplant.

 

Accessing vaccines

Who is eligible for vaccination?

COVID-19 vaccines are available to everyone aged 5 years and over in Australia. The type of vaccine you have depends on your age and whether you have certain medical conditions. You should discuss with your treating team or general practitioner about which vaccine is suitable for you based on your medical history.

What do I need to do before booking a vaccine appointment?

If you are undergoing treatment, consult your treating specialist or GP regarding the best vaccination timing. 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.

What do I need to bring to my vaccine appointment?

  1. Medicare card (if you have one) or Individual Health Identifier (if you have one)
  2. Photo ID that shows date of birth (e.g. A Victorian driver’s licence)
  3. Proof of an underlying medical condition such as a letter from your treating specialist/GP or complete the Eligibility Declaration Form.

Where can I access a third dose?

A third dose of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are now available at state run vaccination centres, GPs, pharmacies, and community health organisations. For immunocompromised people who need support accessing your vaccination, you can register for a disability liaison officer to assist.

How do I access a third dose?

To access your third dose, you’ll need to sign an eligibility declaration form declaring you are severely immunocompromised and have already received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. A full list of therapies and conditions can be found on the Victorian Government website. To check your eligibility, you can also speak with your treating team.

Book your third dose appointments online, or call the Coronavirus Hotline on 1800 675 398.  Alternatively eligible people can walk up to  Victorian vaccination centres that accept third dose walk-ins as well as GPs, pharmacies and community health organisations.

What about children with cancer and vaccination?

Following approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), children aged 5 to 11 can receive the Pfizer vaccine from 10 January 2022. Please speak with your general practitioner or treating team about any questions you have about vaccination.

Bookings can be made at a general practice, community health service or at a vaccination centre using the  online booking system or by calling the Coronavirus Hotline on 1800 675 398. Patients and guardians can book vaccine appointments at Monash Children's Hospital and The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne

Young people must be accompanied a parent or guardian who will give consent and support them during vaccination.

For more information about COVID-19 and young people visit the Victorian Government's vaccination information for children and teenagers or the Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne.

 

Impact on treatment and appointments

Do I need to get a COVID 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.

 

 

Page last updated:

The information on this webpage was last updated 10 January 2022.

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