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?

What 2020 Has Taught Me

This year’s global pandemic has taught me many valuable lessons, some of them I had previously learned by being a cancer patient but had almost forgotten. Ironically, I’ve found that cancer and a pandemic have much in common in terms of the emotional and psychological impact that they have on an individual. The world order has been shaken by this once in a century global crisis and I doubt that we will ever go back to the exact same existence that we knew before. People will divide their lives into before and after the pandemic like I now divide mine into before and after cancer. An article in the British newspaper The Guardian compared the COVID-19 pandemic to a magnifying glass, noting that it has illuminated deprivation, inequalities and political unrest, while reminding us of the power and beauty of nature and humanity.

Here are some of the issues that the pandemic has shed a light on for me:

We are surrounded by a materialistic and competitive culture. 

As I was forced to spend more time at home or in solitude due the pandemic restrictions, I was reminded of what is essential or important. Too many of us can’t imagine life without frequent trips to shopping malls and beauty salons, if we’re younger we don’t know what to do when our weekend isn’t spent going to night clubs and parties. Meanwhile, the pandemic has allowed some of us to regain focus on what really matters, things like our relationships, our sense of self, perhaps in the end our definitive contributions to this world.

The gap between Canada’s richest and poorest continues to widen. 

“There’s a convenient fiction perpetuated that Canada hasn’t experienced the great extreme inequalities of wealth at the top end that the United States has,” a report from Canadians for Tax Fairness said. “It’s true that our wealthiest don’t have fortunes at the same level as Jeff Bezos or Warren Buffett, but the number of Canadian billionaires has increased at a far faster rate than the number of American billionaires and their total wealth has also increased at a much faster rate.” The pandemic hasn’t stopped the wealthiest from growing their fortunes. The report found Canada’s 44 wealthiest people, all billionaires, grew their wealth by a total of $53 billion between April and October of 2020. 

The sick, elderly and disabled continue to be marginalized.

Figures compiled by the Canadian Institute for Health Information uncover the devastation of the pandemic on our most elderly and vulnerable citizens. During the first wave of the pandemic, more than 80 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in the country occurred in long-term care homes and retirement homes. During the second wave, seniors in nursing homes and residents of institutions once again bore the brunt of the pandemic. This was despite vows from federal and provincial governments to make improvements, changes aimed at preventing the second wave from ravaging long-term care facilities. Tragically the pandemic has revealed the systemic failures in how the world’s most developed countries choose to respond to aging, disability and the need for end of life care. 

The lowest paid people in the country are essential to its functioning.

As COVID-19 has invaded the country’s communities, there are many Canadians who cannot — must not — stay home and avoid it. Among them are the recognizable and well-paid heroes, the doctors, nurses and paramedics. These essential workers always have to be there in national or local emergencies, and they have risen to the call time and again. But in 2020, Canada’s essential workforce expanded its ranks. It now includes people who never expected to be on the front lines of a crisis, workers whose jobs have been traditionally invisible or undervalued. These truck drivers, grocery store clerks, cleaners, personal support workers and municipal workers had little time to prepare themselves for their newly dangerous roles. They entered the pandemic without masks, face shields or plexiglass barriers. Along with those in health care, they’ve had to learn on the job how to protect themselves from the virus. A lot of them have gotten sick. And yet, they show up day after day.

Science and medicine are the greatest wonders of our time.

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 one 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.

Cancer Communities Face the Challenges of 2020

Sometimes I find it easy to despair given current world events, including the ongoing global pandemic. This year has been especially stressful for cancer patients undergoing treatment, it has even been difficult for those of us who are in remission. There’s tremendous anxiety around the world as we witness the strain on cancer centres, major hospitals and just about every health care system. I like to remind myself of the resiliency being displayed by cancer communities as they carry on with hope and the determination to make it through this global crisis. I’m especially proud of the cancer organizations here in Canada. and in Calgary, the city where I live. 

Building During COVID-19

Despite the pandemic there is a much needed new cancer centre rising in Calgary. On my many visits to the current Tom Baker Centre, I was alarmed by the obviously overcrowded quarters. When it opened its doors in the 1980s, the Tom Baker Cancer Centre was spacious and featured state-of-the-art design. Flash forward thirty or forty years and the aging centre is crowded and serving a volume of patients that is well beyond the capacity that it was built for. 

After my first couple of appointments, I found it impossible not to notice how filled to capacity the Tom Baker Centre is. Like most patients, I was subjected to the overflowing parking lot, the busy chemotherapy beds and the often packed or standing room only waiting areas. 

Finally, in the fall of 2017 ground was officially broken for the new Calgary Cancer Centre. The facility is scheduled to open in 2023, it will have double the capacity to treat patients and feature ultramodern technology. I don’t know when or if my cancer will return, but I’ve been following the construction of the Calgary Cancer Centre—I’ve been watching throughout the pandemic with anticipation and hope for the future.

I captured this photograph from the Calgary Cancer Centre’s public webcam on the evening of May 26, 2020. I was awestruck by this beautiful image of the sun setting on the massive structure. 

The Walk Must Go On

Meanwhile, I’ve registered for Ovarian Cancer Canada’s largest annual fundraising event, the Ovarian Cancer Canada Walk of Hope. This year it’s become the  Virtual  Edition and will take place on Sunday, September 13. The Walk will certainly look different this year, but the community is focused on achieving our goal  and raising much needed funds to help women live fuller, better, longer lives. 

The pandemic does not change the simple fact that ovarian cancer research is significantly underfunded and that more has to be done to develop better treatments. Scientific progress in the field has been agonizingly slow, more than half of women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer still die within five years. Like many who have battled the disease, I dream that perhaps one day soon there will be a test that can detect ovarian cancer in its early stages. The majority of women are currently diagnosed after the cancer has spread beyond their reproductive system. In the meantime, funds raised for research in the area of immunotherapy might give renewed hope to some of us—especially the thousands who are already living with ovarian cancer or facing a recurrence.

COVID Disruption: Slipping Through the Cracks

One of my greatest fears is that I will get a recurrence of my ovarian cancer as an unprecedented global pandemic continues to inundate hospitals and limit medical services. COVID-19 has really made a mess of healthcare across the board—not just in Canada and the United States, but for the entire world. Elective surgeries have been cancelled, meanwhile family doctors and oncologists are only seeing their most urgent patients. To minimize the risk of infection, cancer clinics and family practices are using virtual appointments whenever possible.

Perhaps the most distressing thing to me is that cancer treatment has lost its sense of predictability and continuity. The way doctors and health care teams are treating cancer continues to change day by day as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds. Because this is wholly uncharted territory and protocols don’t exist, surgeons are considering data from previous studies to guide their treatment decisions. 

For example, in some cases this means changing the order of treatment and administering cancer medicines before surgery. Ovarian cancer is typically treated with surgery first, but since elective surgeries are on hold at many hospitals, some oncologists are choosing to start patients on chemotherapy. “We’re fortunate to know from prior research that the order of those doesn’t matter, that the outcomes are similar even if a patient starts with chemotherapy,” one prominent oncologist explained.

Chemotherapy, though, poses its own set of risks and challenges because it can compromise a patient’s immune system. During the COVID-19 pandemic cancer specialists have to be very thoughtful and careful about the type of chemotherapy they recommend. Fortunately, in most cases there are various treatment regimens that may decrease the risk of immune suppression, and oncologists can also alter the chemotherapy doses as they deal with an unprecedented situation.

According to leading oncologists, the easiest patients to handle at this point are those who are in remission and are just being watched. In those cases, patients connect through teleconferencing, which allows doctors to get a sense of a patients’ general well-being, to interact, and discuss how they’re doing. While this approach eliminates the risk of infection, the majority of cancer patients argue that virtual appointments are not the same as having a doctor who can see you in person, actually measure your temperature, and actually feel any lumps or bumps that you may be experiencing.

The next group, which faces more challenges, is chemotherapy patients. Doctors say people on chemotherapy are the ones that they are the most worried about, because they know the patients have cancer and they know that the window to treat that cancer is fairly limited. Personally, I am extremely grateful that I’m not among the thousands of women with ovarian cancer undergoing active treatment. At most cancer centres patients are still getting chemotherapy, but their oncologists are having them essentially go right from their home to the lab to the chemotherapy suite to avoid coming into contact with as many people as possible.

This routine is very stressful for patients and their caregivers because at most centres social distancing measures are in place that prohibit friends or family members from being in the treatment area. Rules can change almost weekly or with very little notice.  Leading cancer centres acknowledge that their protocols will continue to be adapted throughout the pandemic as circumstances change.

Newly diagnosed patients who may require surgery are another major concern for oncology teams. One oncologist said that the most challenging are the diagnoses where someone comes in with findings that are suggestive of ovarian cancer, but unconfirmed. Sometimes a benign tumor can appear quite abnormal on a scan, and can look quite like cancer. The oncologists have to decide about whether they should bring that person to surgery. Obviously, the operating room is another area where patients are compromised or at risk. Furthermore, surgical procedures require a ventilator, which means the hospital is short one ventilator for another individual who may need it.

These are very tough decisions for doctors. They want to make sure that they’re not putting off the actual ovarian cancer patients a lot more than necessary, but they’re also not taking every single mass that probably is benign to the operating room. And while there’s some notion that specialists can just say, “that’s probably the right call, or that’s probably wrong” … it’s a much trickier discussion. Sometimes I ask myself if what cancer surgeons or decision makers are being forced into doing is gambling with somebody’s health and, potentially, with their life.

COVID-19 and Déjà Vu

There is much that all of us have experienced since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that is shocking, unexpected, unpredictable, unknowable and new. Life like this for some people has become almost overwhelming because there is so much that hasn’t been felt before or seen. I think that ovarian cancer patients might have a unique advantage, we’re already familiar with this type of uncertainty. We suddenly find that we must try our best to live today while we do not know what tomorrow and the day after will bring.

Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I had no true sense of how precarious human existence is or of how uncertain my future had probably always been. Then, on November 3, 2011, I received a phone call from my gynecologist’s office, I was told that he wanted to see me in person immediately. With that meeting I learned that the course of my entire life could change in just a single day, all at once I was forced to acknowledge my own mortality and how fragile life is. 

Lately I’ve signed up for text messages from Alberta Health Services, each day there is a message designed to provide advice or some encouragement during this universally stressful and uncertain time. What I didn’t expect is how closely messages for people during a pandemic would echo the standard counselling that I was given throughout my cancer treatment. Here is some of the familiar advice that I’ve received over the past few weeks.

  • When bad things happen that we can’t control, we often focus on the things we can’t change. Focus on what you can control; what can you do to help yourself (or someone else) today?
  • Set goals for today, even if they are small. Goals should be SMART; Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely.
  • Panic is extreme anxiety that creates tunnel vision and doesn’t solve problems. Take a minute, step back, and think.
  • A healthy body can set the stage for a healthy mind. Do your best to maintain a healthy diet and try to exercise.
  • If your best friend or loved one was having the same negative thought as you, what would you tell them? Try applying that to yourself.
  • Advocate for your needs using assertiveness. Assertiveness is being respectful to you and the other person. Be direct, non-aggressive, and highly specific with your request. 
  • Notice when you’re feeling sad, angry, lost or overwhelmed about life changes. Don’t push the feeling away—acknowledge these feelings and give yourself time to grieve.
  • Make sure each day involves some pleasure (example: take a bath, enjoy food, watch your favorite TV show, talk with a friend).
  • Practice “belly breathing” to reduce stress. Breathe deep into your abdomen. Watch your belly rise and fall.
  • Take a moment to notice how you feel right now. Don’t judge your emotions or try to change them. Just observe them and see how much your current stress levels are reduced.
  • Visualize yourself coping with current problems. See yourself facing these challenges. You have overcome challenges before.
  • Encourage yourself through tough times. Repeat statements like I can do this, this won’t last forever, I’m doing my best.
  • Acknowledge how strong you are to have made it here. You are important, you are brave, and you are resillent.

Cancer Patients in the Time of COVID-19

As a cancer survivor, I’m able to experience the growing global pandemic from a unique perspective. During these extraordinary times my thoughts are often with the ovarian cancer community and the women who I consider to be my teal sisters. I recognize that each of us in this community faces new challenges and I worry for my fellow survivors that I have met in person or online. Are they able to obtain the prescriptions and groceries they need? Are they getting to their treatments? Are they able to have appointments with their oncologists? How are they dealing with the anxiety of facing this terrible situation in an immunocompromised state? Are they exasperated or outraged when they hear reports of some people disregarding the directives given by government officials and health authorities, the unbelievably selfish individuals who are still refusing to stay home or practice social distancing? 

Naturally, as the world is being swallowed by a pandemic many health care systems are working at full capacity and some are courageously trying not to buckle under the strain. How do cancer patients or those struggling with other life-threatening conditions or illnesses get the care they need? Furthermore, the question about whether to continue immune system-suppressing cancer treatments during the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have no clear-cut answers. “Oncologists are in a very particular predicament right now,” says Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, a hematologist and oncologist at Columbia University Medical Center and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies. “Because on the one hand, you don’t want to delay treatment, but you also don’t want to expose patients to risk.” 

Meanwhile, The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has put out a series of general guidelines during this crisis. But the organization has also written that, “At this time, no specific recommendations can be made … for delay in therapy or choosing alternate therapy in the context of Covid-19 infection.” Consequently, in the United States and Canada, oncologists, nurses, care teams, and hospital administrators have been working hard to address each patient’s situation individually.

I like to believe that those of us in the cancer community might actually have some advantages during this terrible global pandemic. Under normal circumstances, oncologists give patients undergoing chemotherapy a list of recommendations that echo the advice we’ve all been hearing for weeks: wash your hands as often as possible, stay away from crowds, dine at home, don’t touch your face, don’t shake hands. For individuals with cancer, these behaviors are often already a way of life. Obviously, individuals living with cancer are used to uncertainty; in addition, we routinely practice social distancing during periods when we’re immunocompromised by chemotherapy drugs. We have become experts at depending on others to help us, spending lots of time alone and learning to use that time productively. Such experience can be useful to help us cope with the demands of protecting ourselves and others during the pandemic

Experts say that some of the psychological issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, are similar to the psychology of receiving a cancer diagnosis. There is much that all of us and each of us have already experienced in the past few weeks that is shocking, unexpected, unpredictable, unknowable, new; much that we have not felt before and not seen. Ovarian cancer patients are familiar with this type of uncertainty. We suddenly find that we must try our best to live today while we do not know what tomorrow and the day after will bring. Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I had no true sense of how precarious human existence is or of how uncertain my future had probably always been. Then, on November 3, 2011, I received a phone call from gynecologist’s office, he wanted to see me in person immediately. With that meeting I learned that the course of my entire life could change in just a single day, all at once I was forced to acknowledge my own mortality and how fragile life is.