COVID-19 Vaccine and Cancer: What you need to know

The Coronavirus: Did we need a vaccine?

Every aspect of the Coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19) pandemic has occurred at record speeds, from disease transmission to vaccine development. COVID-19, caused by a novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2, targets the respiratory system. Most people experience flu-like symptoms; however, in the elderly and those with comorbidities, mild respiratory issues can quickly progress to Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, resulting in multiple organ failure and death.

The highly contagious nature of this virus, which is spread through droplets and aerosols released when an infected person sneezes or coughs, is evident by the fact that over 106 million COVID-19 cases have been reported worldwide. Over 2.35 million people have already succumb to the virus1–3.

The limitations of hospital capacity, ventilators, and healthcare personnel have been constant concerns throughout this pandemic. Worldwide regulations promoting social distancing and hygiene have prevented transmission, but they have also crippled the economy and stifled social freedoms1,2.

The overwhelming nature of this pandemic has led to the development of COVID-19 vaccines within an unprecedented timeframe. Despite the relief that this brings to some, many are concerned about the effects of the vaccine. A poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs research reported that of the 20% of Americans that did not want the COVID-19 vaccine, 70% were concerned about side effects4. Furthermore, the speed with which the COVID-19 vaccines were developed have left many questioning whether proper precautions and protocols are still being implemented. The Food and Drug Association (FDA) has stated that vaccine production will be in accordance with legal and regulatory guidelines5.

A cancer patient, who’s immune system is likely compromised by the effects of chemotherapy, would be understandably concerned about the virus and possible risks associated with the vaccine. This article aims to provide insight into the COVID-19 vaccine, concerns for cancer patients, and recommendations of healthcare professionals.

The COVID-19 vaccine: development, efficacy, and side effects

A vaccine is considered effective when it reduces the infection rate,  disease severity, or disease transmission. One of the main goals of a vaccination strategy is to create herd immunity, which is a large population of people that are immune to a specific disease6. With the aid of new vaccine development technologies, human clinical trials for the first potential COVID-19 vaccine began on March 16th 2020, just 4 months following the outbreak7. On February 10th 2021, the New York Times Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker reported that 69 COVID-19 vaccines were in the human clinical trial phase8.

Vaccine development was previously a 10-15 year process, and had the COVID-19 vaccines been made in this manner, scientists would still be the exploratory phase of the development process9. Soon after the COVID-19 outbreak in China, scientists unraveled the genetic code for SARS-CoV-2, which serves as the blueprint for the virus’s structure10.Then, by studying the virus’s structure, a protein called the spike protein was found on the outer surface of SARS-CoV-2. Researchers found that SARS-CoV-2 uses the spike protein to bind to and enter human cells, where it can replicate and cause sickness11. The spike protein is now the main target for COVID-19 vaccines12.

Traditionally, vaccines contained a weak or inactivated form of a virus that would allow the body to train against a weakened opponent so it would be better prepared to fight the same virus during an actual infection13. The COVID-19 vaccine was developed using RNA technology, an idea that was introduced in the 90’s by French researchers14. An RNA vaccine contains an mRNA sequence, which is simply a refined version of the blueprint used to build a particular protein. Once in the body, cells can process this code to produce the protein. If this is a viral protein, the body recognizes it as foreign, and the immune system is trained to eliminate it. Some COVID-19 vaccines introduce the code for the spike protein so that the body will be trained to fight it when presented with the actual virus13. Two of the leading COVID-19 vaccines, BNT162b2 Pfizer-BioNTech and mRNA-1273 Moderna, which have been approved for emergency use in the U.S. and E.U., are mRNA vaccines that target this spike protein8,15. COVID-19 vaccines may require periodic updates, similar to the Influenza vaccine, in order to accommodate mutations16.

The Centers for disease control and prevention (CDC) reports a 94.1% efficacy with the Moderna vaccine based on 1 large Phase III clinical trial with 30,000 participants aged 18-95 that had not previously tested positive for COVID-19. Systemic adverse effects, described as mild to moderate, were more common after the 2nd dose. These effects were more severe in patients under 6517. Pain, swelling, and redness were reported as localized reactogenicity symptoms, while chills, fatigue, and headaches were listed as systemic adverse effects18. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the Moderna vaccine is safe in patients with comorbidities, such as hypertension or diabetes, and chronic infections, provided that their condition is stable and controlled. Due to the possibility of severe allergic reactions, vaccinees must be monitored for 15 minutes after administration. They also report that the effect on immunocompromised people has not been properly investigated. Persons who have previously tested positive for COVID-19 are not deterred from getting vaccinated, but are advised to wait 6 months19.


Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine require 2 doses for maximal efficacy. The New England Journal of Medicine reported 95% efficacy in persons that received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 52% efficacy is expected after the 1st dose20. A recent report from Israel described a 33% reduction in COVID-19 cases after the first dose. It is important to consider that the Israeli report is based on persons over 60 years, whereas the original Pfizer study included young people as well21. The Pfizer Emmergency Use Authorization Fact Sheet reports similar side effects to that of Moderna, and immunocompromised patients are asked to report their conditions beforehand22.

Female doctor showing two coronavirus vaccine options


The COVID-19 vaccine: considerations for cancer patients

Due to the heterogeneity in cancer patients, there has been some debate as to whether they should be considered a high-risk group. Morbidity and mortality rates between 5 and 61% have been reported in cancer patients that contract COVID-1923. The immunosuppressive effect of many cancer treatments make cancer patients more susceptible to infection. One literature review reported that 10/11 studies in COVID-19 patients reported higher fatalities in patients that also had cancer, especially hematological cancers. Such data argues that cancer patients should be also receive priority vaccination23,24.


Data concerning the effect of the COVID-19 vaccine in cancer patients is very scarce. Of the nearly 44,000 participants in the Pfizer clinical trial only 3.7% were cancer patients23. The immunosuppression in cancer patients caused by chemotherapy, radiation, and/or targeted therapy is also expected to reduce the efficacy of the vaccine. The goal of a vaccination is to elicit an immune response that will train the immune system to fight against a particular disease. A weakened immune system is less likely to respond to this challenge and may therefore be incapable of being trained25. Some have tried to compare the COVID-19 vaccine to the Influenza vaccine; however, studies reporting the vaccine efficacy in cancer patients who received the flu vaccine show that the outcome depends on the cancer type and treatment26–28.

Dr. Nora Disis, a medical oncologist and the director of the Institute of Translational Health and the Cancer Vaccine Institute at the University of Washington, suggests that vaccine dosage and the timing are points of concern, especially in patients in active treatment. She also suggested that cancer patients avoid vaccinations containing an active form of the virus as this could lead to infection in immunocompromised patients29.



Recommendations and reminders for cancer patients

Currently, no COVID-19 vaccines containing live virus have been approved for administration, therefore there should be no risk of becoming infected by the vaccine itself29. As studies of the vaccine in cancer patients are lacking, it is uncertain if cancer patients are susceptible to side effects other than those reported in the general population. The overall recommendation for cancer patients is to receive the vaccine as the risk of contracting the virus is far greater than the possibility of the vaccine being less effective30. We recommend that patients actively on treatment discuss with their oncologist the timing of vaccine administration.


Dr. Jeffrey Farma, a surgical oncologist at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Pennsylvania, recommends that cancer patients with upcoming surgeries schedule enough time between surgery and the vaccination. Furthermore, patients that have undergone a bone marrow transplant should consult with their hematologist to determine when their immune system will be able to respond to the vaccine. All cancer patients or survivors should consult with their physicians before getting vaccinated31.


Time will tell if current COVID-19 vaccines provide long-term protection and whether they are effective against new variants. Therefore, the advice given to all vaccination recipients is to continue adhering to social distancing and hygiene regulations. Cancer patients, especially, should continue to protect themselves from unnecessary exposure to COVID-19 and any other diseases32,33.



Dr Juneja joins Maryland Oncology Hematology’s White Oak Cancer Center after 13 years of practice in Northern Virginia and Bethesda.  He has subspecialized in breast, gastrointestinal, lymphoma, and myeloma in his prior practices. He is very interested in clinical research and cutting edge as well as precision medicine. Previously, he has designed clinical trials with Bristol Myers Squibb, been a medical officer at the FDA, and has been an investigator in several clinical trials.

Having survived cancer himself, he completely understands what it is like to be a patient. He lives with his wife, 2 children, dog, and enjoys playing piano, tennis, running, bicycling, and sailing.




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Maryland Oncology Hematology and The US Oncology Network Welcome Cynthia Plate M.D. F.A.C.S, Specialist In Breast Surgery

Dr. Plate brings a new line of treatment services to the clinic, offering patients cutting-edge breast preservation techniques


Silver Spring, MD- November, 2020 Maryland Oncology Hematology, the premier provider of cancer services in the Maryland region, announced today it has added a breast surgical oncologist to the practice, enhancing the comprehensive multidisciplinary care it provides to breast patients. Cynthia Plate M.D. F.A.C.S specializes in breast surgery and has extensive training and experience in the field. MOH has been serving cancer patients in the Maryland area for over 40 years, providing patients convenient access to leading cancer experts and the most advanced cancer therapies available today.

Dr. Plate has many years of rigorous education, training, and experience focusing on breast disease and surgery, providing her with a superior understanding of breast cancer biology, genetics, and advanced oncoplastic surgical techniques and breast preservation procedures. By adding Dr. Plate to the practice, MOH’s new White Oak Cancer Center enhances its ability to offer multidisciplinary team care for all types of complex breast issues, including benign breast disease, malignancies, and management of high-risk patients. Seamless high-quality care is provided by a collaborative team of specialists in breast surgery, medical and radiation oncology, diagnostic imaging, pathology, genetic risk evaluation, and supportive care.

“Dr. Plate shares our passion of providing exceptional multidisciplinary cancer care, and we are delighted to have her join our growing practice” said Dr. Joseph Haggerty, President at Maryland Oncology Hematology. “With her focus on new surgical advancements in breast cancer treatment, Dr. Plate will be a great addition to our breast cancer team as we seek to deliver the best breast cancer treatment in the Maryland Region.”

Cynthia Plate M.D. F.A.C.S is board-certified in general surgery and is a breast care specialist. She previously worked with Adventist HealthCare Medical Group.

Dr. Plate graduated from Howard University College of Medicine and completed her internship and residency at Howard University Hospital

“Specializing in women’s breast health, I’m committed to providing my patients with exceptional and compassionate care,” said Dr. Plate. “I’m thrilled to join the MOH team where we can continue to deliver leading-edge cancer care to our community.”

Dr. Plate is currently seeing patients at MOH’s Silver Spring White Oak Cancer Center office. Timely appointments are available for newly referred patients, typically within 24 hours, to provide a high level of support and prompt access to care. Please call 301-933-3216 to make an appointment


About Maryland Oncology Hematology


Maryland Oncology Hematology is an affiliate of The US Oncology Network (The Network). This

collaboration unites MOH with more than 1,400 independent physicians dedicated to delivering value-based, integrated care for patients — close to home. Through The Network, these independent doctors come together to form a community of shared expertise and resources dedicated to advancing local cancer care and to delivering better patient outcomes. The US Oncology Network is supported by McKesson Specialty Health, whose coordinated resources and infrastructure allow doctors in The Network to focus on the health of their patients, while McKesson focuses on the health of their practices. MOH participates in clinical trials through US Oncology Research, which has played a role in more than 70 FDA-approved cancer therapies, approximately one-third of all cancer therapies approved by the FDA to date. For more information, visit


About US Oncology Network

Maryland Oncology Hematology is a practice in The US Oncology Network (The Network). This collaboration unites the practice with more than 1,200 independent physicians dedicated to delivering value-based, integrated care to patients — close to home. Through The Network, these independent doctors come together to form a community of shared expertise and resources dedicated to advancing local cancer care and to delivering better patient outcomes. The Network is supported by McKesson Corporation, whose coordinated resources and infrastructure allow doctors in The Network to focus on the health of their patients, while McKesson focuses on the health of their practices. Maryland Oncology Hematology also participates in clinical trials through US Oncology Research, which has played a role in more than 100 FDA-approved cancer therapies.



Media Contacts:


Mark W Lamplugh Jr

The US Oncology Network

(561) 762-9729


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