Immunotherapy and the COVID vaccine: Your questions answered

For those with cancer, the risk of developing serious illness from COVID-19 is often a major concern. Cancer treatments can weaken the body’s immune system, increasing your risk of developing a serious infection.

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that boosts and supports your immune system in response to cancer. If you or a loved one is receiving immunotherapy for cancer, you may have concerns about how the COVID vaccine will affect your immune system and your treatment.

This article will answer some frequently asked questions about cancer immunotherapy and COVID vaccines.

People with weakened immune systems due to cancer are at increased risk of poor outcomes from COVID-19. No matter where you are in your treatment plan, vaccination can reduce the risk of severe COVID-19 infection. Vaccination is important even for those with a strong immune system.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) and American Cancer Society Recommend that people with cancer, including those receiving treatment, be vaccinated as soon as possible. The NCCN notes some exceptions regarding immediacy:

  • People undergoing a stem cell transplant must wait at least 3 months after treatment to receive the vaccination.
  • People receiving CAR T-cell therapy or natural killer (NK) cell therapy must wait at least 3 months after treatment to get vaccinated.
  • People with cancer who have had major surgery must wait several days to two weeks after the procedure to get vaccinated.

Because they weaken the immune system, some cancer treatments reduce – but do not eliminate – the effectiveness of the vaccine. Even if you receive one or more of these treatments, you will still get some protection from the vaccine. Treatments include:

Vaccination along with preventative measures, such as wearing a mask and avoiding large crowds, gives you more protection from COVID than you would without it. For this reason, experts highly recommend vaccinating people who have cancer or who have a history of cancer.

But consult your oncologist first about when to vaccinate. If you are currently receiving treatment for cancer, it may be best to wait until your immune system has recovered from the treatment. This will give you the best chance of building a strong immune response.

Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines are suitable for use in people who are taking immunotherapy medications. Neither vaccine is known to be better than the other for this population.

a Study 2021 The Moderna vaccine has been found to be safe for people with solid tumors who are receiving chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or both. Their response to the vaccine was similar to those who did not develop cancer. The groups also experienced similar rates of side effects.

A separate 2021 study indicated that people with solid tumors who received the Pfizer vaccine had similar levels of antibodies to those without cancer 6 months after vaccination. In the subgroup of people on immunotherapy, about 87% still had antibodies, compared to about 84% of the control group.

If you can’t get any of these vaccines or don’t want to, you can also get the Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) vaccine.

Having cancer or taking immunotherapy drugs does not increase the chance of serious side effects, such as allergic reactions or myocarditis.

Swollen lymph nodes under the arm on the same side as the injection site is a possible side effect of the vaccination. While this is temporary, it can be worrying for people with breast cancer and other types of cancer.

The pain and swollen lymph nodes caused by the vaccination should subside within a few days to a few weeks. Let the health care professional know if the swelling increases or does not go away during this time frame.

So far, researchers I don’t know at all If immunotherapy drugs affect the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, either positively or negatively.

Scientific articles from 2021 And the 2022 She suggests that checkpoint inhibitors could theoretically enhance your immune response to the COVID-19 vaccine. But both articles also state that no study has proven such an effect.

Some immunotherapy drugs, such as CAR T cells, may be weakens the immune system Temporarily. This may make the vaccine less effective. Other types of immunotherapy drugs, such as monoclonal antibodies, should not have this effect.

People with weakened immune systems may find it difficult to generate a strong response to a vaccine, regardless of the type of cancer treatment they receive. This may be especially true for people with leukemia. For this reason, protocols doses Immunocompromised people And they have a cancer that is different from that used for the general public.

To date, there is no data to suggest that the COVID vaccine reduces the effectiveness of immunotherapy drugs. But there may be a file 17% to 48% The risk of side effects due to an overactive immune response, according to research.

a Status report published in May 2021 It suggests the possibility of cytokine release syndrome after COVID vaccination in patients taking certain immunotherapy drugs. The study authors stated that more data is needed and they still favor vaccination for people with cancer.

a Study 2021 134 people found no adverse effects from immunotherapy drugs after receiving the Pfizer vaccine. The study authors also stressed the need for larger studies and more data, but supported vaccination for people receiving immunotherapy.

However, the effect of some immunotherapies on your immune system makes the timing of vaccination important. Talk with your oncologist about when to schedule your vaccination.

People taking immunotherapy drugs should receive an additional initial dose of the vaccine if they have active cancer or are immunocompromised. It may fall into one of these categories if any of the following situations apply:

  • You are undergoing CAR-T cell therapy.
  • You are taking steroids in high doses to treat side effects of immunotherapy medicines (or for any other reason).
  • You get cancer treatments like chemotherapy in addition to immunotherapy.
  • I started cancer treatment within one year of my first dose of the COVID vaccine.
  • You have recently been diagnosed with cancer or have had recurrent cancer, and you are or will be receiving treatment for cancer.
  • You have any type of leukemia.
  • You have an immune system condition, such as HIV, as well as cancer.
  • You have had an organ or stem cell transplant.
  • You have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 and developed COVID-19 after getting two doses of the vaccine.

yes. Getting COVID does not guarantee that you will not get it again. Indeed, with the advent of ever-changing variants, contracting the virus more than once has become a common occurrence.

If you are taking cancer treatments that cause you to be immunocompromised, it is essential that you get vaccinated, even if you already have the coronavirus. Talk with your oncologist about when you can get vaccinated after you contract COVID-19.

If you have cancer, you may be more likely to develop serious complications from COVID-19. Cancer treatments, including some immunotherapy drugs, may affect your vaccination schedule. Talk with your oncologist about when to schedule your vaccinations and how many doses you should get.

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