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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.

Download our fact sheet ‘COVID-19 Vaccination, Information for people affected by cancer’ developed with the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

Download fact sheet

The following FAQs are developed to support the needs of people affected by cancer.

General questions

1. 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.

2. 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

3. Do I need a third dose? 

A third dose of COVID-19 vaccine has 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 who have received a second dose more than six months ago should receive a third dose as soon as feasible. Advice on third doses for the general population are due later this month. 

4. 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.

5. When should I have the third dose?

The recommended spacing for the third dose is between two and six 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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 condition can be found on the Victorian Government website. To check your eligibility, you can also speak with your treating team.

Third dose appointments can't be booked online, however severely immunocomprised people can book a third dose by calling 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.

10. 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. 

11. 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. 

12. What about long-term effects? 

Over 6 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 is used to monitor for 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 website.

13. 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.

14. Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for people with cancer?

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

15. Will getting the vaccine interrupt my cancer treatment? 

While it is ideal to get vaccinated before starting treatment, a patient 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.

16. 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

17. 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 patients 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.

18. 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.

19. 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.

20. 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.

21.  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. 

22. Even though many people are being vaccinated, am I more at risk when restrictions ease?

It is normal to feel anxious and concerned about what easing restrictions will mean 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.

Specific groups

23. 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.

24. 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

25. Which vaccine am I eligible for?

There is now no restriction on the type or brand of COVID-19 vaccine for anyone aged 12 years and above. You should discuss with your treating team or general practitioner about which vaccine is suitable for you based on your medical history.

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

If you are undergoing treatment, consult your treating specialist or GP regarding optimal 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.

27. 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

29. My child has cancer are they prioritised for vaccinations?

Young people aged 12 to 15 with specified medical conditions that increase their risk of severe COVID-19 are prioritised for reserved vaccination appointments with Pfizer. Extending access to COVID-19 vaccines for children under 12 years requires approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

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.

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 Royal Children's Hospital website.

30. Can I now get the Moderna vaccine?

Anyone aged 12 years and over is eligible to receive the Pfizer and  Moderna vaccines at participating vaccination sites. Pfizer and Moderna are the preferred vaccines for people aged 12 to 59 years. Visit the Victorian Government website for more information or Cancer Australia’s Cancer & COVID FAQs.

31. Where can I get more information about the vaccines?

32.  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:

Impact on treatment and appointments

33. 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.

34. When are they going to have the better, faster COVID tests in hospitals?  

The Victorian Government has recently announced plans to purchase rapid antigen tests for Victoria’s health system to provide a broader range of testing measures.

There are currently 33 different rapid antigen tests authorised for use by the TGA in Australia and trials are currently underway in Victoria. While rapid antigen testing is less accurate than standard PCR testing currently in use, it offers a 15-to-20-minute result turnaround at the point of testing.

Antigen tests will be used across our healthcare system in hospitals and community health services to support staff surveillance testing, management of close contacts and triaging of patients requiring urgent care, including patients who present to emergency and are awaiting the results of a PCR test.

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