Vaccinations have been an important part of healthcare prevention initiatives since the late 1790s when the first smallpox vaccine was developed. Since then, vaccines helped stop the spread of other deadly diseases including, polio, measles, hepatitis, flu, and most recently, coronavirus (COVID-19). If you have cancer, you might be wondering if getting vaccinated, like the annual flu shots, is helpful or harmful, especially if you are currently receiving cancer treatments. In order to answer that question, you need to understand what vaccines are and how they work.
What are vaccines
When a “foreign” substance enters the body, your immune system produces antibodies to fight it off. This foreign substance is called antigen. An antigen can be a pathogen (bacteria and viruses), chemicals, toxins, and pollens. Vaccines are used to “teach” your immune system to recognize and fight off antigens from certain diseases, such as those mentioned above. There are six types of vaccines: live virus, inactivated virus, subunit, toxoid, mRNA, and viral vector.
Live Virus Vaccines
Live virus vaccines use the weakened form of the virus. They help the immune system recognize the virus to create a lasting protective immune response, but do not cause disease in healthy individuals. Additional doses or boosters for these vaccines are not always needed. Examples include nasal mist flu vaccine, measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), smallpox vaccine, and varicella vaccine.
Inactivated Virus Vaccines
Inactivated virus vaccines are taken from live viruses that have been killed. The killed virus can create an immune response but are incapable of causing disease. Multiple doses and boosters are often needed to build up immunity for full protection. Examples include polio vaccine and flu (injection) vaccine.
Subunit vaccines do not use live pathogens but rather pieces of a pathogen. Since they are not made with the whole organism, they cannot make you sick. Examples include hepatitis B vaccine, shingles vaccine, and pneumonia vaccine.
Toxoid vaccines neutralize the toxic activity caused by bacteria rather than the bacteria itself. An example of this is Tdap, a combination of three vaccines that protect against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. Boosters for these vaccines are recommended every 10 years.
Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines use the virus’ genetic code. When injected, the RNA material enters the cells causing it to produce antigens specific for that virus, which then triggers an immune response. This mechanism does not change your cells or your DNA, rather it teaches the cells the unique make-up of that specific virus so it is better equipped with antibodies when exposed to it in the future. Examples are COVID-19 Moderna vaccine and COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine.
Viral Vector Vaccines
Viral Vector Vaccines work similarly to that of mRNA vaccines, except they use a harmless virus to deliver the genetic code to the cells in your body. Examples are ebola vaccine and COVID-19 Johnson and Johnson vaccine.
Are vaccines safe for people with cancer?
Cancer and cancer treatments make you immunocompromised, or have a weak immune system. This makes you more vulnerable to infections. If an infection is not found and treated early, it can be life-threatening. As you have read, vaccines require an immune system response to work. It is that immune response that makes you feel sick after receiving a vaccine. With a weak immune system, vaccines will not work as well as they should. Vaccines may still be given, but it is important to know which ones are safe and when. Generally, immunocompromised individuals should not get live virus vaccines. When you are actively receiving chemo or radiation treatments, any vaccine is not recommended except for the flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine.
Flu viruses change constantly, so it is recommended to get the flu shot every year to reduce the risk of infection. The flu can be life-threatening, especially to those with weak immune systems, so prevention is very important. The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer patients receive the inactivated flu virus vaccine every year. People with cancer should not get the nasal mist flu vaccine because it contains the live virus. The best time to get the shot depends on your cancer type and treatments, so discuss it with your doctor beforehand.
The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) recommends that people with cancer get fully vaccinated against covid, including boosters. If you are in the process of receiving stem cell transplant or cellular therapy, you should wait to receive the covid vaccine three months after finishing treatment. Cancer patients receiving any other treatments should get vaccinated as soon as possible.
How to stay healthy
Whether you are fully vaccinated or not, you must still do what you can to prevent infections:
- Wash your hands often
- Avoid large crowds, and if you must, wear a mask
- Stay away from anyone with the flu, flu symptoms, or any other infections
- Follow your healthcare team’s recommendations after any treatments
- Contact your doctor right away if you are exposed to any illness or having any symptoms
Do not delay in preventing infections. Talk to your doctor today about getting vaccinated. If you are still unsure, our team of experts at OncoPower are ready to answer all your questions.