With Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination program now underway, we know you probably have many questions about the vaccines and your cancer treatment.
COVID-19 vaccination fact sheet
This fact sheet was prepared in collaboration with Cancer Council Victoria to address some of the most common questions being asked about the COVID-19 vaccines.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below is a list of frequently asked questions and answers on the COVID-19 vaccination program.
If you have further questions and are on active treatment, please call your Patient Navigator.
If you're not on active treatment, you can also contact Cancer Council Victoria’s cancer nurses on 13 11 20, who can provide information and support services to anyone affected by cancer - whether it's patients, carers, family, friends, workplaces or health professionals. You can also email them via their Contact a cancer nurse form. The nurses are available from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. If you need a translator to use this service, call 13 14 50.
There are three vaccines that have been secured by Australia. Two have been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
- Pfizer (USA) / BioNTech (Germany) vaccine – often referred to as the Pfizer vaccine – requires two doses, three weeks apart.
- Oxford University (UK) / AstraZeneca (UK/Sweden) vaccine – often referred to as the AstraZeneca vaccine – requires two doses, 12 weeks apart.
The third vaccine, Novavax (USA) – often referred to as the Novavax vaccine, is still being studied and has not yet been TGA-approved for use in Australia.
The vaccines will train our immune system to recognise the COVID-19 virus and fight it more quickly and effectively if we encounter this virus in the future.
Both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines have passed Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration’s assessment and approval processes that assess vaccine safety, quality and effectiveness.
They do not contain the live virus that causes COVID-19 and therefore there is no risk of catching the infection from the vaccines.
A rare but serious side effect involving thrombosis in the brain (blood clots) along with thrombocytopenia (low blood platelet count) has been linked with the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, predominantly in people under 50 years.
As a result, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) has advised Australian adults under the age of 50, including people with a past history of cancer who are in remission and more than five years post-treatment, to receive the Pfizer vaccine in preference to the AstraZeneca vaccine.
However, both vaccines are equally recommended for all Australian adults aged 50 years and over.
The ATAGI has also recommended that the AstraZeneca vaccine can be used in people under the age of 50 following consideration and discussion of their personal risk for severe COVID-19 infection balanced against possible side effects.
Some types of cancer and their treatment increase the risk of catching COVID-19 and having a more severe illness from COVID-19. Vaccination against COVID-19 is therefore highly recommended, as long as the person does not have a serious allergy to components of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The COVID-19 vaccines have not been studied specifically in patients with cancer. How your immune system responds to the vaccine may be influenced by your own general health and your cancer treatment.
We know from studies of other vaccines (such as the flu vaccine) in patients with cancer that the level of response or protection from vaccination may be lower compared to people without cancer. So steps that you have taken to reduce your risk of infection, such as physical distancing, hand hygiene and use of masks, remain important even after vaccination. Such measures help prevent infection, while vaccination is designed to reduce the impact of COVID-19 should you become infected.
All individuals should follow Australia-wide advice on which vaccines to take, based on their age and risk factors. In addition, the ATAGI recommends that COVID-19 vaccination be deferred for people who have a history of two rare conditions – brain blood clots, known as cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST) or low platelets caused by heparin induced thrombocytopenia.
Based on how the vaccines work, we do not anticipate that the vaccines will reduce the effectiveness of cancer treatments.
Your doctor will be able to discuss timing of vaccination with you, as with some therapies it may be preferable to avoid vaccination during certain treatment periods. This is to avoid confusion around possible side effects and whether they have been caused by the vaccine or your cancer treatment.
People with a blood cancer diagnosis (myeloma, lymphoma or leukaemia) are at increased risk of complications from COVID-19 infection. Vaccination against COVID-19 is therefore highly recommended, as long as the person does not have a serious allergy to components of the COVID-19 vaccine.
For patients who have had an autologous or allogeneic stem cell transplant, vaccination is recommended at least three months after your transplant.
Common side effects from the vaccine have typically been mild and short-lived – like pain or redness at the injection site. Up to half of all vaccinated people will experience some general side effects such as tiredness, headache and muscle aches and pain or fever.
You should seek medical advice if, for example, you develop a fever, accompanied by shivering and sweating or if unexpected symptoms such as severe headache appear or persist beyond the first three days following vaccination.
An annual influenza vaccination is generally recommended. Your doctor can advise on timing, as the current recommended gap between a dose of seasonal influenza vaccine and a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine is at least seven days.
If you have had a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine in the past, or to a particular type of COVID-19 vaccine, you should discuss with your doctor or specialist the type of reaction you had to the particular vaccine. You may be referred to specialised vaccination clinics for further assessment and if suitable, for vaccination under close supervision.
COVID-19 vaccines are free in Australia. The type of vaccine offered and availability of vaccination bookings is dependent on vaccine supplies, which may be limited initially. Generally, patients with cancer are in Phase 1b of the Australian Government vaccination program. The Australian Government’s Vaccine Eligibility Checker can be used to find out which phase of the rollout you are in. If you are eligible, you will be able to view your nearest vaccination clinics and book an appointment online or via phone. If you are not yet eligible, you will be able to register your interest so that you can be notified when you are able to book. To check your eligibility and book, go to:
- Australian Department of Health COVID-19 vaccine webpage
- Cancer Australia’s FAQs about COVID-19 vaccines
- Melbourne Vaccine Education Centre Frequently Asked Questions on COVID-19 vaccines
- National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance Frequently Asked Questions on COVID-19 vaccines
- Call the National Coronavirus Helpline on 1800 020 080, and ask for an interpreter if needed
- Contact Cancer Council on 13 11 20, for information and support services to anyone affected by cancer. Available 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. If you need a translator to use this service, call 13 14 50
When enough of us get vaccinated against COVID-19, life will be better for everyone.
It is encouraged that you share these vital messages with your friends, family, colleagues and social media networks.