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COVID-19 Vaccine: What Cancer Patients and Survivors Need to Know

Satheesh-Kathula,-MD,-FACP

Dayton Physicians Network Provides Education to Cancer Survivors on COVID Vaccine

Dr. Satheesh Kathula of Dayton Physicians Network Discusses the Benefits of the COVID-19 Vaccine

Many cancer survivors and patients are wondering if it’s safe to get one of the approved COVID-19 vaccines since we understand that age and having an underlying medical condition, such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes put people at a greater risk of developing serious illness or complications from the virus. Dr. Satheesh Kathula, MD, an oncologist at Dayton Physicians Network, offers insight on this important topic.

Common Questions

Dr. Satheesh Kathula, MD, oncologist at Dayton Physicians Network, said cancer patients are at risk in general because of their advanced age. In addition, there are issues with immunity with cancer and some patients are getting treatments such as chemotherapy which makes them not only prone to get COVID infection, but also have more severe disease with increased morbidity and mortality” said Dr. Kathula.

Patients who have certain types of cancers, such as blood cancer or lung cancer have a greater risk of infection or death from COVID – not only because of the cancer, but because of the type of treatment they receive.

Dr. Kathula said doctors have to consider whether a person is an active cancer patient or a cancer survivor. Another consideration for cancer patients is the aggressiveness of their disease. Patients who have a worsening disease are at a higher risk.

“Even in active cancer patients, it depends on what kind of treatment they are receiving,” he said.

Treatment options for cancer can range from surgery, radiation, immunotherapy, chemotherapy, targeted treatments, or B-cell depleted treatments (B-cells are needed for immunity, and if you don’t have immunity, you are at more risk of getting infections and dying from them.)

Dr. Kathula said approximately two-thirds of patients at Dayton Physicians Network want to get vaccinated and the other third of patients have expressed a concern about safety, or they don’t want to get vaccinated or waiting for a vaccine which is one dose only and is “completely” safe.

“The risks of COVID vaccine in cancer patients are pretty similar to non cancer patients., but the real question is the efficacy,” he said.

According to Dr. Kathula, many patients are more accepting when he shares his own vaccination experience.

“When patients are concerned, I share my personal experience with the vaccine. I’ve had two doses of the vaccine. I did okay with the first vaccine, but with the second one, I did have mild, flu-like symptoms for a day or so, but when you look at the benefits and risks of the vaccine, I can say that the benefits outweigh the risks,” said Kathula.

Timing of the Vaccine

Once the vaccine is available widely, it may be appropriate to start, or put your cancer treatments on hold until the vaccine has been administered. Your doctor or oncologist can give you the best advice in regard to the timing of the vaccination and how it will impact your cancer treatment. Considerations like the type of cancer and kind of treatment you receive may have an impact on when you should receive the vaccination.

“When we are treating patients with active cancer, one has to weigh the benefits and risks, whether the patient can wait for the treatment to begin before they receive the vaccination. Can we vaccinate and then treat? If they have low-grade disease, or indolent disease, we can certainly wait, give the vaccine, wait for four to six weeks, and then start treatment. That can prevent infection,” Dr. Kathula said.

Patients that are undergoing surgery, radiation, targeted treatment, or immunotherapy can receive the vaccine with no compromise in the efficacy, he said.

“On the other hand, if somebody has a rapidly progressive disease, we need to treat them with the appropriate treatments, and then vaccinate when they’re done with treatments,” Kathula.said.

Patients that are receiving chemotherapy or B-cell depleted treatments have to wait, because the vaccine may not work if they are undergoing these types of treatments.

“The caregivers of patients who are undergoing active treatments have to be vaccinated, because they can actually give infections to these patients who are mostly homebound,” said Kathula.

Vaccines are Safe, Check with Your Doctor

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the approved COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at preventing symptomatic infection and require two doses to achieve maximum effectiveness.

Generally, for cancer survivors and active patients, a COVID-19 vaccine is considered safe, but there are factors to consider. It is best to talk with your doctor about the treatment options that are available to you.

“We have to look at two things when we are giving any treatment or a vaccine, number one, safety, and number two, efficacy. So, is it safe in all these patients? It is safe, I can say, whether they are getting treatments, they have active cancer, or whether they are cancer survivors. There is no live virus involved, that’s why the safety is as good as with any other population, and what is the efficacy? That’s what we don’t know because there’s no data. However, we recommend the vaccine due to favorable risk benefit ratio”

Cancer survivors and patients are in one of the priority groups to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Continue Safe Practices

Regardless of whether patients receive the vaccination, Dr. Kathula of Dayton Physicians Network said it is important to continue wearing a mask, to maintain physical distancing and to wash your hands frequently. Even with a vaccination, these protocols need to be continued to ensure the maximum level of safety for everyone.

“The vaccine should not give a false sense of security, not only for cancer patients, but everybody else. So, we still have to maintain all of these practices.”

So, for cancer survivors, he said, they are at higher risk than general population, but they are at less risk than patients that are undergoing active treatments, especially chemotherapy and B-cell depleting treatments. They come under Phase 1C, according to the CDC guidelines. (Phase 1C has not started yet.) However, in certain places, some patients are already receiving the vaccine.

Dayton Physicians Network Offers Patient-Centered Care

Established in 2006, Dayton Physicians Network takes a comprehensive approach to patient-centered care, because it often takes the combined skills of several medical professionals to provide the best care possible. The mission of Dayton Physicians Network is to earn the trust of patients and colleagues by exceeding their expectations with quality of care, scope of services, compassion, timeliness, and cost effectiveness.

Dayton Physicians Network was one of the first oncology-focused physician practices in the area. Based in Dayton with more than 50 physicians and mid-level care providers, along with 350 employees on our team, the network provides support services for patients and their loved ones, offering immediate care at 12 practice locations from Greenville to Middletown. For more information about Dayton Physicians Network go to www.daytonphysicians.com.

To learn more about COVID-19 and vaccines, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) websites.