Is it safe to get the COVID-19 vaccine if you have breast cancer? Dr. Halle Moore of Cleveland Clinic provides valuable insight, including a discussion of side effects and the importance of staying up-to-date with visits and screenings.
Dr. Halle Moore is Director of Medical Breast Oncology at the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Moore, here.
Dr. Halle Moore:
For most adults with cancer or with a history of cancer, vaccination against COVID-19 with one of the newly approved vaccines is definitely recommended.
Common side effects after the COVID vaccinations are a sore arm, which is probably one of the most common side effects that we see. Fatigue and muscle aches can occur. Also, some patients will experience fever and chills, and that seems to be especially after the second dose of the vaccine. Rarely, severe allergic reactions can occur. And also, some people will experience enlargement of lymph nodes, typically in the underarm area or in the neck on the side of the vaccination.
This is particularly important for cancer patients to be aware of since enlarged lymph nodes could also be seen with cancer, and that might be alarming to some patients if they experience this side effect without knowing that that is a normal immune response to the vaccine.
In addition, cancer patients who are getting imaging, either a CAT scan or even a routine mammogram, if they get that imaging soon after the vaccine, the lymph nodes could be seen on imaging, and that might raise a concern as well. So, it’s important that patients let their provider know if they’ve had a recent vaccine and they’re getting any kind of imaging or mammogram.
So, breast cancer patients who are on chemotherapy or other treatments that could affect the immune system should definitely discuss with their oncology team the timing of vaccination with respect to their treatments.
This often needs to be individualized based on the planned duration of the cancer treatment as well as how much that treatment actually affects the immune system. In general, it is safe to get the vaccine during chemotherapy. It’s just that there may be a potential for reduced immune response during certain types of chemotherapy.
On the other hand, some chemotherapies are given more long term. And we don’t generally advise interrupting the chemotherapy for vaccination. So, oftentimes, we will recommend vaccination even in the setting of cancer treatment. Certainly, anti-estrogen treatments, hormonal treatments for breast cancer, or radiation treatment for the breast cancer should not alter either the safety or the effectiveness of these vaccines.
So, some of the ingredients in the various vaccinations that have led to these allergic reactions that we’ve heard about are also present in certain chemotherapy drugs. So, for people who have had a life-threatening reaction to chemotherapy, for instance, an anaphylactic reaction, it would be a good idea to discuss with your oncologist whether you should see an allergist prior to vaccination. This is something that we’re recommending for patients who’ve had severe allergic reactions to try to determine what component the reaction was to and whether vaccination with any of the individual vaccines might be safest.
Delaying care for non-COVID-related health concerns has been a major concern over the past year. It’s important for people to know that hospitals and medical clinics have numerous safety precautions in place. And we are really strongly encouraging everyone to continue to address all of their healthcare needs and to receive important treatments, particularly cancer treatments.