COVID-19 vaccines and cancer: Panel addresses safety, effectiveness and optimism

March 25, 2021
five vials of Covid-19 vaccine on a white surface
Hollings experts encourage cancer patients, survivors and caregivers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as they're eligible. Adobe Stock

While there is still much to learn about the COVID-19 vaccine’s effectiveness in people undergoing cancer treatment, all cancer patients, survivors and caregivers should be vaccinated against the virus as soon as they’re eligible. That’s the message that leaders from MUSC Hollings Cancer Center and MUSC Health hope people took away from Hollings’ virtual panel discussion held on March 4.

Experts in cancer care, epidemiology and medical safety came together to address more than 60 virtual attendees who livestreamed the event on Zoom and Facebook. They discussed how the COVID-19 vaccines work, whether the vaccines are safe for those in active cancer treatment and special considerations for patients who are undergoing surgery. Panelists also covered hot topics such as variants of the virus, herd immunity and where the pandemic is headed.

A recording of the event, which has been viewed more than 400 times, is available on Hollings’ Facebook page.

Hollings director Raymond N. DuBois, M.D., Ph.D., who hosted the event, said, “While this has been a stressful time for everyone, we recognize that this has been especially difficult for our cancer patients and survivors who may be dealing with a weakened immune system as a result of their cancer or their cancer treatment. We do believe that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, however, thanks to the development of vaccines that are highly effective in protecting individuals against COVID-19 infection and the serious complications that can be associated with it.”

People who are in active cancer treatment became eligible for vaccination in South Carolina on March 8 as the state entered Phase 1b of its vaccination rollout plan. This change in eligibility was applauded by Hollings leaders involved in advocacy efforts to have cancer patients, who have increased risk of developing serious infection-related complications, be prioritized for vaccination.

“Cancer is a comorbidity, and we know that cancer patients are at higher risk of developing serious complications if they do develop COVID-19. So, from our standpoint, the benefits of vaccination substantially outweigh the risks of vaccination.”
— Dr. David Mahvi

While cancer patients weren’t included in clinical trials that demonstrated the vaccines’ effectiveness in preventing COVID-19 infection, there’s no reason to believe that the vaccines won’t work in cancer patients, said David Mahvi, M.D., chief of the Oncology Integrated Center of Clinical Excellence at MUSC Health and one of the event’s panelists.

“Cancer is a comorbidity, and we know that cancer patients are at higher risk of developing serious complications if they do develop COVID-19. So, from our standpoint, the benefits of vaccination substantially outweigh the risks of vaccination,” said Mahvi.

Mahvi discussed how there’s currently no evidence to suggest that the vaccines cause problems for patients who are undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy for their cancer. Patients who need surgery should avoid vaccination for several days immediately before and after their procedures, as symptoms from the vaccine can mimic those postoperatively, but all patients are encouraged to be vaccinated before they leave the hospital.

Danielle Scheurer, M.D., chief quality officer for the MUSC Health System and professor in the Department of Medicine, gave a presentation on how the vaccines work, including potential side effects and how they are distributed. Because of the technology used in the vaccines that are currently authorized for use in the U.S., it’s not possible for the COVID-19 vaccine to give a person the virus, she said.

“Some patients have had concerns about whether the vaccine can alter their DNA or enter their nucleus, and the answer is no. Messenger RNA vaccines are very safe and time-limited, and they’re actually incredibly brilliantly designed,” said Scheurer.

She also mentioned that potential side effects are minimal, mild and not something people likely haven’t experienced from vaccines for other illnesses. The most common side effects were mild pain at the injection site, fatigue and muscle aches.

“Some patients have had concerns about whether the vaccine can alter their DNA or enter their nucleus, and the answer is no. Messenger RNA vaccines are very safe and time-limited, and they’re actually incredibly brilliantly designed.”
— Dr. Danielle Scheurer

Epidemiologist and director of the MUSC Center for Global Health, Michael Sweat, Ph.D., delved into the virus’ variants and what they could mean for reaching herd immunity, which occurs when the percentage of a population that is immune to the virus is so high that it prevents the virus’ spread. Variants are naturally occurring genetic mutations in the virus that are most commonly found in places where the virus is widespread.

“To get the number of those mutations down, we really have to slow transmission, and that would be achieved through behavioral prevention, vaccines and natural immunity,” said Sweat, who noted it’s important to increase immunity and prevent transmission not only locally but globally. “If we don’t suppress transmission in other countries, then we’re going to continue to have a problem here in South Carolina with these mutated variants.”

A variant originally identified in South Africa is particularly present in South Carolina, with the state claiming more than 40% of identified cases in the U.S., as of Feb. 28. That’s one reason why it’s important to continue taking preventive measures, such as wearing a mask, physical distancing and avoiding travel, even after a person has been vaccinated.

“Many people are optimistic about the vaccines and hopeful that the many people who have already been infected won’t get infected again, but there is consensus in the epidemiology literature that we do run the risk of another wave. I would strongly encourage people to take that to heart,” said Sweat. “In balancing pessimism and optimism, I think optimism wins at this point in time, but we need to stick with this, be patient and work together.”

Aside from getting the COVID-19 vaccine, panelists reminded viewers of the importance of continuing with their regular cancer and preventive care, including getting their routine cancer screenings.

To watch the recording of this event, visit Hollings’ Facebook page. More information about COVID-19 vaccination as it relates to cancer can be found on Hollings’ website.

For the latest information on vaccine appointment availability at MUSC Health, visit this page.

About the Author

Kelsey Hudnall
MUSC Hollings Cancer Center

Keywords: Cancer, COVID-19