COVID-19: 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 causes a respiratory disease named coronavirus disease 2019, which is abbreviated COVID-19.
As SARS-CoV-2 spreads, the virus can change, which results in new variants. Some variants may spread more easily than others or be more resistant to vaccines or treatments.
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.
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.
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 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 current with the 2023–2024 updated COVID-19 vaccines to protect against serious illness from COVID-19. That includes most people with underlying medical conditions, including cancer, as well as people who have already had COVID-19.
Vaccination remains the best protection against COVID-19-related hospitalization and death. If you have not received a COVID-19 vaccine in the past 2 months, it is important to get an updated COVID-19 vaccine to protect yourself this fall and winter against the variants that are currently circulating. If you recently had COVID-19, you still need to stay up to date with your vaccines, but you may consider delaying your vaccine by 3 months.
Updated Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 mRNA vaccines and an updated Novavax protein subunit vaccine were approved in fall of 2023.
CDC has information about how to stay up to date with the COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States.
People with certain medical conditions that weaken the immune system, including people with cancer who are receiving chemotherapy, those with certain blood cancers regardless of treatment status (for example, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, acute leukemia), and those who received a stem cell transplant or CAR T-cell therapy within the last 2 years, may have a weaker response to COVID-19 vaccines than people whose immune systems are not compromised.
People taking therapies that suppress the immune system, such as some treatments for cancer, should talk with their doctors about when to get a COVID-19 vaccine and whether to get additional doses. CDC recommends that patients taking immunosuppressive treatments should not delay their COVID-19 vaccine. COVID-19 vaccines should be given at least 2 weeks before beginning or resuming these treatments.
CDC recommends people who received one or more doses of COVID-19 vaccine before or during a stem cell transplant or CAR T-cell therapy be revaccinated. Revaccination should start at least 3 months after transplant or CAR T-cell therapy.
People who received one or more doses of COVID-19 vaccine while being treated with drugs that destroy B cells, such as rituximab (Rituxan), may also want to be revaccinated. Revaccination should start about 6 months after completing B cell-depleting therapy.
To help protect people with cancer from COVID-19, it is important that their family members, loved ones, and caregivers stay up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines.
To find a COVID-19 vaccine near you, visit Vaccines.gov.
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:
- Stay up to date on COVID-19 vaccination.
- 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 an infection? What treatment should I get if I have 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. 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: