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Coronavirus: What People with Cancer Should Know

NCI information specialists are available to help answer your questions about coronavirus and cancer Monday through Friday 9:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. ET.

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 has caused a pandemic of respiratory disease named coronavirus disease 2019, which is abbreviated COVID-19.

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

Having cancer increases your risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Other factors also increase your risk for severe illness from COVID-19, including a weakened immune system, 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 these patients often have abnormal or depleted levels of immune cells that produce antibodies against viruses.

NCI is conducting a large study of people with cancer who have COVID-19 to learn more about the risk factors for COVID-19 and to help doctors better manage treatment for people with cancer and COVID-19.

At this time, it is not known whether having a history of cancer increases your risk for severe illness from COVID-19. People who have been treated for cancer in the past may want to discuss their concerns about COVID-19 with their doctors.

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

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone 12 years and older get a COVID-19 vaccine. That includes people with underlying medical conditions such as cancer and people who are participating in cancer trials, although trial participants should talk to their clinical trial research team and follow their guidance.

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 until 2 weeks after vaccination to get immunosuppressive treatment.

COVID-19 vaccine trials have shown that the safety and efficacy of the vaccines are similar in people with underlying medical conditions that put them at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and in people without those conditions. And vaccines for other infections, like the flu, are safe and recommended for people with cancer.

However, most COVID-19 trials have excluded people with cancer, so more data are needed on the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines in these individuals. There is some evidence that people treated for cancer and others who are immunosuppressed may have a weaker response to the vaccines. To help protect people with cancer from COVID-19, it is important that family members, loved ones, and caregivers get vaccinated.

Learn more about what people with cancer should know about COVID-19 vaccines. To find a COVID-19 vaccine near you, visit Vaccines.gov.

COVID-19 Vaccine and Breast Cancer Screening

A COVID-19 vaccine shot may cause temporary swelling of the lymph nodes in the armpit, recent studies have found. Because this side effect of the vaccine may be mistaken for a sign of breast cancer, several oncology groups are recommending that people wait 4‒6 weeks after completing COVID-19 vaccination before getting a mammogram.

What are other ways that I can protect myself?

Credit: CDC

Aside from vaccination, the most effective way to prevent COVID-19 is to avoid being exposed to the virus that causes it. People at high risk for developing serious illness from COVID-19 can help protect themselves by limiting their interactions with other people as much as possible and taking precautions to prevent getting COVID-19 when they do interact with others. These precautions include:

  • Wear a well-fitting mask that covers your nose and mouth.
  • Stay 6 feet away from people who don’t live with you.
  • Get a COVID-19 vaccination.
  • Avoid crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces.
  • 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.
  • Be alert for symptoms of COVID-19.

What should I do if I have symptoms of an infection?

If you think you have been exposed to COVID-19 or have symptoms of an infection, isolate yourself from others and call your health care provider. You may need to get tested for coronavirus.

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. Learn more about feelings you may have and ways to cope with them.

What if I have additional questions?

NCI’s Cancer Information Service (CIS) can help answer questions that you or a loved one may have about COVID-19 or your cancer care.

To reach the CIS:

  • Call 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. ET in English or Spanish. After business hours, recorded information is available.
  • Online LiveHelp® chat offers online assistance in English and Spanish Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. ET.