What you need to know about COVID-19 vaccines: Information for people with cancer
This information is accurate as of April 14, 2022. Information about the COVID-19 vaccines is changing quickly. Ontario Health will update this handout as information changes.
Read this information to learn about:
- Why people with cancer should get vaccinated
- How the vaccines work and how they are given
- How many vaccine doses you may need
- Possible side effects from the vaccines
- Why it is important to follow public health rules after getting the vaccine
This information is meant to give you, your family and caregivers general information about the COVID-19 vaccines and what is known now.
Check the websites of Ontario’s Ministry of Health and your local public health agency to find out more details. Call the Ontario Vaccine Information Line (1-888-999-6488) if you would like to use the phone.
Why should people with cancer get vaccinated?
People with cancer may have a higher risk of:
- Getting COVID-19
- Getting very sick from COVID-19
- Dying from COVID-19
People with cancer should get all doses of the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they can.
How are the vaccines given?
The COVID-19 vaccines are a series of shots (needles) into your upper arm, like the flu shot.
How many COVID-19 vaccine doses will I need?
Keeping up to date on your booster shots is very important for everyone. Check with your local public health unit for recommendations about booster shots.
Cancer and cancer treatments (like chemotherapy) can weaken your immune system. Most people got 2 vaccines at the beginning but some people, including many people with cancer, needed 3 doses of vaccine to start because of a weakened immune system. This is to make sure that people got enough protection from the vaccine.
Here are some examples of people with cancer who may have a weakened immune system. People who:
- Have had a stem cell transplant or CAR-T therapy in the last 2 years
- Are getting or have recently stopped (within the last 3 months) having cancer treatments that suppress their immune system, such as:
- Monoclonal antibodies (such as, ritixumab)
- Other targeted agents (such as, CDK4/6 inhibitors, PARP inhibitors)
Since then, booster shots have been needed because COVID-19 vaccine protection starts to fade over time. Booster shots are usually given at least 3 months after your last COVID-19 vaccine dose. As time goes on, you will likely need more booster shots.
If you are at high risk of getting very sick from COVID-19, you must also be extra careful to protect yourself from getting infected. Limit your close contacts to people who are fully vaccinated.
Stay away from crowds and indoor places where you are not sure if others have been vaccinated.
When is the best time to get the COVID-19 vaccine if I am being treated for cancer?
If you have not yet had any doses of vaccine, it is very important for you to get your first dose as soon as possible. Talk to your healthcare team if you have questions or concerns
If you are getting any of the treatments below, speak to your cancer care team about the best timing for your COVID-19 vaccine:
- Stem cell transplant
- Adoptive cell therapy
- Immunosuppressive therapy (treatments that weaken your immune system)
How do the COVID-19 vaccines work?
The COVID-19 vaccines teach your body to make proteins that fight the COVID-19 virus.
You cannot get COVID-19 from any of the vaccines.
Which vaccine will I get?
The vaccine you get will depend on which vaccine is available in your area at the time of your appointment, your age, sex and other factors. There are several brands of vaccines being used in Ontario. They have all been tested and shown to be safe and work well.
How do I know that the vaccines are safe?
Billions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been given to people all over the world. Serious side-effects from the vaccines are extremely rare.
The COVID-19 vaccines are safe for people with cancer. People with cancer should get fully vaccinated as soon as possible to avoid getting very sick from COVID-19.
What are possible side effects from the vaccines?
You may have mild side effects in the days after getting their vaccine. Most side effects will go away on their own.
The most common side effects from the vaccines are:
- Pain, a change in colour, redness or swelling in your arm where the needle was given
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Body aches and chills
- Joint pain
- Mild fever
- Swollen glands can happen for a few days after getting a COVID-19 vaccine. Talk to your cancer care team if this lasts for more than a few days.
If side effects last for more than 2-3 days, make sure you speak to your health care team.
Rare but serious side effects
Though it is rare COVID-19 vaccines have been linked to:
- myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle)
- pericarditis (inflammation of the lining of the heart)
These serious side-effects have happened more in younger patients. For most people, the heart inflammation has been mild and has gone away quickly.
Get medical help right away if you have chest pain, shortness of breath or heart palpitations (a fluttering or pounding heart) after getting an mRNA vaccine.
Some brands have had fewer reports of myocarditis than others. Check with your health care team to find out which brand is right for you.
Can the vaccine cause allergic reactions?
It is possible to be allergic to ingredients in the COVID-19 vaccines. If you have any serious allergies or have had a serious allergic reaction to other vaccines, drugs, or food, talk to your cancer care team or your family health team before you get the COVID-19 vaccine.
If you had an allergic reaction to your first COVID shot you may need to see an allergist/immunologist before getting your second shot. You may also need to get your vaccine in a hospital instead of at a clinic or pharmacy.
For more information about ingredients in the vaccines, search the vaccine names on the Health Canada website or ask your health care team.
Do I need to keep following local public health rules after getting the vaccine?
Yes. Every local public health unit sets their own rules about protections for COVID-19. Check with your local public health unit to find out what is allowed in your area right now.
People with cancer who have a weakened immune system should consider:
- Wearing a mask when in close contact with others, especially when indoors
- Wash your hands often
- Stay apart from other people unless you know that they are fully vaccinated
Are there times when I should wait to get the vaccine?
There are times when some people should wait to get the COVID-19 vaccine:
- If you currently have COVID-19 you should wait to get the vaccine until after you recover from the virus. Even if you have already had COVID-19 you need to get your vaccine because it is possible to get the virus again. Talk to your health care team about when to get the vaccine after you recover.
- If you have symptoms of COVID-19 or are currently self-isolating you should wait to get the vaccine. Talk to your health care team about your symptoms and getting a COVID-19 test. Your health care team will tell you when to get the vaccine.
It is safe to get your flu shot at the same time as your COVID-19 .
Speak to your surgical team about the best time to get your vaccine if you are having surgery.
For more information
Talk to your health care team for more information about the COVID-19 vaccines.
Provincial Vaccine Information Line
Call if you have questions about Ontario's COVID-19 vaccination program or booking your vaccination appointment. Information is available in multiple languages.