Why Most Cancer Patients Should Be Vaccinated Against Covid-19

Sometimes I marvel that I’m alive because of medical science and what it’s capable of in the fight against cancer, during the search for a COVID-19 vaccine my sense of wonder was renewed. Never before in human history have vaccines for a pathogen entered final stage clinical trials and received approval for distribution to the public so rapidly. Just over a year ago, when the death toll from the coronavirus stood at one and neither it nor the disease it caused had a name, a team of Chinese scientists uploaded its genetic sequence to a public site. That kicked off the record-breaking rush to develop vaccines. It’s difficult to associate anything to do with this pandemic with good fortune, but the fact that the culprit was a coronavirus — one that was strikingly similar to others that had previously leapt from animals to people — meant scientists could quickly rejigger vaccine projects in the works for those. It was almost like swapping a blue Lego for a red one in their assemblies.

In December 2020, Health Canada authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Soon there was more encouraging news when they officially authorized a second vaccine for the virus, an injection manufactured by Moderna. The first Canadians to be offered the country’s limited inventory of the vaccines were those considered to be most vulnerable, the staff and residents of nursing homes and long-term care homes were prioritized. The frontline doctors and nurses who have been risking their own lives during this pandemic were also given appointments to receive their immunizations against COVID-19. I watched, as some of the health care workers receiving the vaccine shed tears of joy and relief. Many proudly posted photographs of themselves getting vaccinated on social media, reassuring the public and preparing us all for when it would eventually be our turn.

Naturally there are segments of the population that are hesitant or sceptical about the new COVID-19 vaccines and are unsure if they should be immunized. History reveals that vaccine scepticism is as old as vaccines themselves. Increased resistance to compulsory smallpox vaccination during the 1870s and 1880s exposed the fragility of trust in both the political and medical establishment. The most radical opponents to vaccines used demonstrations and publishing to rally their cause. The situation is similar today, many doctors and infectious disease experts acknowledge that their work has been made more challenging due to the anti-vaccine movement. 

Making sure that patients receive clear and accurate information is essential and everyone has a role to play. Ultimately preventing misinformation is a shared responsibility. The flow of medical knowledge works best when researchers, journalists and the public are strongly connected and considerate of one another. Nineteenth-century doctors tried to maintain boundaries between scientific journalism and the media, but were unable to prevent the public and journalistic demand for health information. That desire remains with us today. But even working together, the solution isn’t simple, experts maintain that changing behaviour in vaccine hesitant patients, isn’t always as easy as correcting misinformation. There’s still an emotional gap and trust gap that physicians regularly need to bridge in order to elicit this behavioural change.

Like all informed people, I accept the scientific conclusion that if you have active cancer, you’re at a higher risk for more serious outcomes if you acquire COVID-19. Cancer is considered an underlying medical condition. It’s a scientific fact that many cancer treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, can weaken your immune system, making it harder for you to fight the virus. Initial clinical trials on COVID-19 vaccines did not include people with cancer or those receiving treatments that can suppress the immune system. However, many professional organizations are endorsing the vaccines’ safety and efficacy for this group. Since individuals living with cancer are at increased risk of serious illness resulting from COVID-19, there is growing consensus among health authorities and oncologists that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks. Some exceptions include people who are severely immunocompromised or who have certain severe allergies .The National Cancer Institute emphasizes that people, including those with underlying medical conditions such as cancer, may get vaccinated if they have no history of severe allergic reaction (e.g., anaphylaxis) to any component of the vaccine.

As a final point, cancer patients going through active treatment are definitely at higher risk for COVID-19 complications, but what about cancer survivors or those whose cancer is in remission, such as myself? Little data is available to date on how the virus affects cancer survivors, but some early research suggests that we might also be at a higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes. One UK study found that the majority of comorbidities thought to be associated with poor COVID-19 outcomes were more common in the cancer survivors than the cancer-free controls. In general, cancer survivors had significantly higher rates of diabetes, asthma, and other respiratory disease, as well as more chronic heart, liver, and renal disease, and neurologic conditions, than controls. Nine years after my cancer diagnosis I appear fortunate to have few of these lasting health complications. Still I’ve made up my mind, after considering the research and the scientific facts, that I will be getting vaccinated as soon as I’m given the opportunity.


Further Reading

COVID-19 Vaccines: Separating fact from fiction on side effects, blood clots and more

Delaying second vaccine dose leaves cancer patients vulnerable to virus

For High-Risk Cancer Patients, Experts Consider Any Vaccine-Induced Covid-19 Protection Beneficial

How can I overcome my fear of needles to get a COVID-19 vaccination?

The Blame Game: Guilt and Cancer

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2014 is to more effectively manage the guilt or shame that I sometimes feel concerning my cancer. It seems unfair considering all the other unpleasant emotions that cancer triggers, but guilt in its various forms is a constant enemy waiting to attack cancer survivors and their caregivers.

It’s been well documented that many cancer survivors have feelings of shame or guilt, particularly around the notion that they may have played some part in causing their cancer. Certain cancers, for example lung cancer, have especially strong stigmas attached to them in this regard. “He smoked heavily, so what did he expect?” When it comes to cancer we often subtly, or not so subtly, blame the person for his or her disease. Friends, family members or strangers often do this unwittingly, in an attempt to rationalize a painful reality and to cope with it better themselves. Human psychology being what it is, whenever we can construct an explanation for something, it makes us feel a little better. Experts, such as renowned scientist and author Jon Kabat-Zinn, emphasize that blame only robs an individual with cancer of the present by directing their attention on the past—it undermines them when they most need to focus their energies and face the reality of having a life-threatening disease.

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While gynecological cancers don’t involve the same degree of stigma as lung cancer or some other forms of the disease, I’ve still experienced times when I’ve felt that I might be to blame for my illness. Leading up to my diagnosis, I was having symptoms that could indicate uterine and/or ovarian cancer and my doctor recommended surgery. At first I was somewhat hesitant due to fear and denial of my situation. I had never been hospitalized or had any type of surgery before, now I was being informed that I should have a total abdominal hysterectomy as well as the removal of my right ovary. My gynecologist had to “twist my arm” to a certain degree. I ultimately consented to the procedure when I realized that it was in my best interest. What would the outcome have been if I had chosen to have the operation sooner? Would my endometrial cancer be less advanced, lower than the stage III that I am currently diagnosed with? Would it have had time to spread to my lymph nodes and affect my right ovary?

There is no way to determine these things for certain, but I do regret my hesitancy to take action. Everyone has done things that they wish they hadn’t. My argument is that there is a difference between taking responsibility for the consequences of actions and feeling like you deserve to be blamed. It may be true in some cases that our lifestyle or health care choices increase the odds of getting cancer or contribute to cancer progression. No doubt in such circumstances changing certain behaviours may improve your health. However, allowing a patient to absorb blame and feel shame will almost certainly make matters worse. Instead, it’s better for cancer survivors not to let shame and guilt keep them from moving forward, getting the support they need and deserve, and living in a healthier way. Shame and guilt are unnecessary burdens to carry. From everything that’s known about the emotions and health, acceptance and forgiveness are what we need to cultivate and enhance healing, not self-condemnation and self-blame.

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This having been said, there are numerous other ways in which guilt manifests itself in the lives of cancer survivors. Guilt takes sinister forms for us, like feeling shame for the envy we feel about those who are in good health; feeling guilty about the disproportionate amount of attention we receive, and even guilt about surviving cancer when so many others have not. I remember feeling guilt-ridden when I was undergoing cancer treatment and unforeseen complications occurred. My condition ultimately caused me to spend over a month and a half in Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre. As my primary caregiver, my mother had her life completely turned upside down. Although she is semi-retired, she took a leave of absence from her part-time job and rearranged her daily schedule to visit me. My brother also took some hours off work at the law firm where he practices. Suleika Jaouad, a young American fighting leukemia, describes herself in similar circumstances:

“I feel guilty when I start feeling sick or get a fever. I want to apologize, for I know I will soon make the life of my loved ones hell. My mother will have to drive four hours in the middle of the night to take me to the hospital in New York City. Family will have to take sick days from work. After long days at the office, my boyfriend will spend night after night sleeping between two hospital chairs. My father will “hold down the fort” at home (this translates to lonely nights spent worrying by himself and feeling very far away from my hospital room).”

Finally, as I’ve alluded to, some cancer patients experience the discomfort of what is termed survivor guilt. I’m aware through various sources that I’ve outlived several of my former cancer ward roommates. Perhaps it’s only human nature to occasionally wonder why I’ve been fortunate enough to achieve remission, when so many women diagnosed with my form of cancer have lost their agonizing battle.

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For more information regarding guilt and cancer or to seek professional advice contact the psychosocial oncology department at your regional cancer centre or reach out to other cancer resources in your community.