From Questions to Confidence: Understanding COVID-19 Vaccines

February 02, 2021

For the past year, the pandemic has felt out of our control, and in many ways that’s true. However, COVID-19 vaccines bring new hope – and opportunity for us all to do our part to slow the spread of the virus. As the vaccines become available, it’s important to understand how they work, why they’re safe for current cancer patients and survivors, and what to expect at your vaccination appointment.

How COVID-19 Vaccines Work

As of February 2021, two COVID-19 vaccines are approved under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) emergency use authorization, both of which are messenger RNA vaccines, or mRNA. Here’s what you should know.

  • The COVID-19 vaccines are new, but mRNA vaccines have been studied by scientists and researchers for decades.
  • They use the body’s own immune system to produce a special type of protein, called a “spike protein,” to prevent infection with COVID-19.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the spike proteins created as a result of mRNA vaccines trigger an immune response to produce antibodies that protect the body from COVID-19.
  • Some vaccines, such as the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), use small amounts of live but weakened viruses – but not the two current COVID-19 vaccines. While you may experience side effects such as arm soreness, headache, fatigue, or mild fever, you won’t get COVID infection from the shot.
The science is clear: COVID-19 vaccines are safe and recommended for most people, including patients with cancer.”

Why COVID-19 Vaccines are Safe

All vaccines go through rigorous and lengthy processes, including evaluation by an independent review board, before reaching the FDA’s stringent scientific and regulatory process. For example, COVID-19 vaccines were administered to patients as part of clinical trials. As a cancer patient, you may have heard about or participated in a clinical trial focused on innovative new cancer therapies or procedures. Before COVID-19 vaccines were authorized by the FDA, data from large-scale clinical trials confirmed that the benefits of the vaccines are safer than becoming infected with COVID-19. While the process was swift, no steps were skipped. The science is clear: COVID-19 vaccines are safe and recommended for most people, including patients with cancer.

What to Expect When You Get the COVID-19 Vaccine

Every patient with cancer responds to treatment a little differently – the same is true of COVID-19 vaccines. Here’s what you should know before you’re vaccinated:

  • Patients with cancer should talk to their physician before getting the vaccine.
  • Everyone is asked screening questions before getting the vaccine.
  • For the currently approved vaccines, two vaccine shots, given several weeks apart, are needed to provide the best protection against the virus. Both shots are given in the upper arm.
  • Everyone who gets a COVID-19 vaccine is required to be monitored on-site for a minimum of 15-20 minutes after each shot.
  • If you have a history of allergic reactions after getting shots, contact your primary care physician to discuss whether the vaccine is safe for you.
  • You will receive a vaccine card. Keep it in a safe place for your records and share a copy with your oncologist.

Texas Oncology encourages patients and their families to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Talk to your physician if you are unsure about getting the vaccine based on your personal health history. It’s understandable to have questions and concerns. Your physician can provide evidence-based guidance from leading infectious disease experts and discuss whether COVID-19 vaccines are right for you. Together, we can slow the spread of COVID-19.