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Cancer and COVID-19

Find answers to common questions about living with cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic

Questions about cancer and COVID-19

From the National Cancer Institute (NCI)

The questions and answers below were originally published by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the US government’s main agency for cancer research.

Information about the COVID-19 pandemic is always changing. Ask your doctor any questions you have about COVID-19 and how it may affect you and your treatment.

What is coronavirus, or COVID-19?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in people and many different species of animals. SARS-CoV-2 is a novel (new) coronavirus that causes a respiratory disease named coronavirus disease 2019, which is abbreviated to COVID-19.

If I have cancer now or had it in the past, am I at higher risk of severe COVID-19?

If you have cancer, you have a higher risk of severe COVID-19. Other factors that increase the risk for severe COVID-19 include having a weakened immune system (being immunocompromised), older age, and other medical conditions.

People with blood cancers may be at higher risk of prolonged infection and death from COVID-19 than people with solid tumors. That is because patients with blood cancers often have abnormal or depleted levels of immune cells that produce antibodies against viruses.

If you had cancer in the past, you also may be at higher risk of severe COVID-19, and you may want to discuss your concerns about COVID-19 with your doctors. 

If I have cancer now or have had it in the past, should I get a COVID-19 vaccine?

Yes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone age 6 months and older stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccination, including all primary series doses and boosters. That includes most people with underlying medical conditions, including cancer.

If, like most people (including most people who had cancer in the past), you have a healthy immune system, CDC recommends that you follow this vaccine schedule for people who are not moderately or severely immunocompromised.

People with certain cancers and those who are receiving treatment that suppresses the immune system may have a weaker response to COVID-19 vaccines than people whose immune systems are not compromised.

You may be moderately or severely immunocompromised if you:

  • are currently receiving treatment for cancer
  • had an organ transplant and are taking medicine to suppress the immune system
  • had CAR T-cell therapy or a stem cell transplant within the last 2 years
  • are taking high-dose corticosteroids or other drugs that may suppress the immune system
  • have a moderate or severe primary immunodeficiency syndrome
  • have advanced or untreated HIV infection

If you are moderately or severely immunocompromised, CDC recommends that you follow this vaccine schedule.

If you recently received cancer treatment that suppresses the immune system—such as chemotherapy, a stem cell or bone marrow transplant, or cell therapy—your doctor may suggest that you wait until your immune system has recovered before you get vaccinated. Or your doctor may suggest that you wait a few weeks after vaccination to get immunosuppressive treatment.

Talk with your doctors if you think you may need to be revaccinated.

If I’m at high risk for severe COVID-19, what are other ways that I can protect myself?

Aside from vaccination, the most effective way to prevent COVID-19 is to avoid being exposed to the virus that causes it. To protect yourself and prevent the spread of COVID-19, take precautions:

  • Get vaccinated against COVID-19 and stay up to date on boosters
  • Wear a well-fitting mask that covers your nose and mouth
  • Stay 6 feet away from people who don’t live with you
  • Avoid crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces
  • Some doctors advise that you make sure anyone you do have contact with has been vaccinated and/or tested negative for COVID-19
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available
  • Cover coughs and sneezes
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily
  • Monitor your health and be alert for symptoms of COVID-19

Your family members, loved ones, and caregivers can help protect you and other people at high risk of serious COVID-19 by following these precautions, too.

What should I do if I have symptoms of COVID-19?

If you think you have been exposed to COVID-19 or have symptoms of an infection, you should get a COVID-19 test. If the test shows that you have COVID-19, isolate yourself from others and call your health care provider.

Treatments are available for people who test positive and are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19. These treatments must be given within a few days after symptoms begin, even if your symptoms are still mild.

If you are being treated for cancer and need treatment for COVID-19, your health care providers should consider potential drug interactions with your cancer therapies or overlapping side effects. In some cases, your cancer treatment may need to be paused or modified while you receive treatment for COVID-19.

This is a stressful time. How do I cope?

Coping with cancer in the face of the coronavirus can bring up a wide range of feelings you’re not
used to dealing with. Your doctor may have some resources that can help you cope through your
cancer journey.

What if I have additional questions?

NCI’s Cancer Information Service (CIS) can help answer questions about COVID-19 or your cancer care, and can be reached by telephone or live chat.

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