Is the COVID Vaccine Safe for People With Lung Cancer?

The SARS-CoV-2 infection leads to COVID-19, a disease that primarily includes respiratory symptoms. Though hundreds of millions of people have contracted the virus, the majority of people recover without problems. However, people with underlying medical issues, including lung cancer or a weakened immune system, are at risk for severe disease. 

Vaccination is an essential tool to protect against COVID-19. It has proven to be safe and effective in people with lung cancer, who are already at an increased risk of death from the virus due to its respiratory factors.

This article discusses why people with lung cancer need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Person receiving COVID vaccine

Karl Tapales / Getty Images

The COVID-19 Vaccine

The development of the COVID-19 vaccine has been one of the most critical advances in the course of the pandemic. Certain populations can particularly benefit from vaccination, such as those at higher risk for severe disease or death from the virus.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that unvaccinated adults are 16 times more likely to be hospitalized than fully vaccinated people. It also shows that unvaccinated adults over age 50 are 46 times more likely to be hospitalized than people who have been fully vaccinated and received an additional booster dose.

COVID-19 Vaccine Options

A few different COVID-19 vaccine options are approved for use in the United States, but the most widely used are the mRNA vaccines.

Although the mRNA vaccine technology seems new to the general population, it has been perfected over decades and is proven to be safe and effective.

Pfizer-BioNTech

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is an mRNA vaccine that requires two shots, 21 days apart.

The vaccine is 95% effective in preventing infections in people ages 16 years and older who receive two shots. The vaccine is 90% effective in preventing infections in children ages 5 to 15 years and in people with underlying medical conditions.

Age Availability

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is recommended for people ages 6 months and older.

Moderna

The Moderna vaccine is an mRNA vaccine that requires two shots, 28 days apart. It is 94% effective in preventing infections in people who receive two doses.

The Moderna vaccine is recommended for people ages 6 months and older.

Novavax

The Novavax vaccine is a protein-based vaccine that uses a custom-made spike protein that mimics the natural spike protein in the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The vaccine is 90% effective in preventing infections in people who receive two doses. The Novavax vaccine is recommended for people ages 12 years and older.

Johnson & Johnson's Janssen

The J&J Janssen vaccine is a viral vector vaccine that uses a modified, harmless version of another virus engineered to hold genetic material from SARS-CoV-2. It is given in one shot.

The J&J vaccine is not as effective as the mRNA vaccines and is the least preferred in the United States. It is 66% effective at preventing infection in people ages 18 and older. Still, the vaccine had high efficacy in preventing hospitalizations and deaths.

Rare Side Effects of the J&J Vaccine

J&J's Janssen vaccine has been associated with a rare blood disorder, thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS), that leads to blood clots. People who received Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine have also developed another condition, Guillain-Barré syndrome. This is a rare disorder where the body’s immune system attacks the nerve cells leading to muscle weakness and paralysis.

Is Vaccination Safe for People With Lung Cancer?

The COVID-19 vaccines have been proven safe and effective in initial safety studies, clinical trials, and real-world practice. Hundreds of millions of people have received the COVID-19 vaccine, and most have not experienced problems with it.

Severe complications after vaccination are rare, and have been more common in people who received J&J's Janssen vaccine. Some people have developed myocarditis or pericarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle or the sac that lines the outside of the heart, after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines. However, most responded well to treatment and did not develop further complications.

The initial clinical trials that evaluated the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines did not include people with cancer. However, since the release of the initial vaccines, researchers have spent time assessing vaccination in people with cancer.

Now, after further study, experts agree that COVID-19 vaccination is just as safe for people with cancer as for the general population.

Research has also confirmed that the vaccine is safe in people with lung cancer.

COVID-19 Rates in People With Cancer

Approximately 1%-8% of people hospitalized with COVID-19 have a history of cancer. The likelihood that someone with cancer will die from COVID-19 is about 30%, much higher than the general population's 1%-2% mortality rate. Moreover, among all people with cancer, people with lung cancer or blood cancer appear to be at the highest risk of death from COVID-19.

Contraindications for the COVID-19 Vaccine

The only contraindication (reason for harm) to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine is a history of a severe allergic reaction to the vaccine itself or its ingredients.

Polyethylene glycol is a preservative ingredient in mRNA vaccines, and polysorbate is in J&J’s Janssen vaccine. If a person is allergic to these ingredients, they should not receive the vaccine.

No Dangerous Ingredients

These vaccines do not contain:

  • Preservatives
  • Food allergy proteins, like eggs or gluten
  • Metals
  • Latex

COVID-19 Vaccine Side Effects

Side effects from COVID-19 vaccination are similar to those of other vaccines. People can experience:

Illustration of the potential COVID vaccine side effects

Theresa Chiechi / Verywell Health

The side effects are the same in people with cancer, the most common being injection site pain, tiredness, fever, chills, and muscle aches. The side effects typically go away within three days.

Severe problems with vaccination are rare, and if they do occur, they usually happen within six weeks of receiving a vaccine dose.

Swollen Lymph Nodes

Some people might also develop tender, swollen areas in the armpit on the side of the injection. These are swollen lymph nodes, the body's normal immune response. These swollen lymph nodes should not cause alarm that cancer has worsened.

COVID-19 in People With Lung Cancer

COVID-19 infection damages the lungs, which is particularly concerning for people with lung issues like lung cancer.

People with lung cancer have a 30% mortality rate from COVID-19, which is significantly higher than the general population. Researchers suspect this increased risk of death is because these people already have severe lung injury.

Scientists have already determined that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe, even in people with lung cancer. Instead, their primary concern is whether the vaccines are effective in people with cancer. 

Antibodies are the proteins responsible for helping to prevent and fight infection. People with lung cancer often take medications that weaken the immune system, including corticosteroids, targeted therapy, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy.

Cancer treatments strain the body's ability to develop an appropriate antibody response after any vaccination. This means that the vaccines may not be as effective in people with lung cancer and a weakened immune system.  

However, researchers have demonstrated that people with lung cancer vaccinated with two doses of an mRNA vaccine develop good immunity to SARS-CoV-2. Despite this, they stress the need for extra vaccine doses and boosters to help improve immunity. 

Vaccination Recommendations in People With Lung Cancer

Most experts and professional societies recommend vaccination in people with cancer, including:

  • American Cancer Society (ACS)
  • American Association for Cancer Research (AACR)
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO)
  • Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer (SITC)
  • European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO)

Research does not suggest that vaccination will interfere with cancer treatment. However, people with cancer are advised to speak with their oncologist or another healthcare provider if they have questions about vaccine interference with cancer treatment.

The CDC recommends an mRNA vaccine in two shots plus an additional dose for people with active cancer and a weakened immune system. The third dose of vaccine can help build immunity. People should obtain the third dose of vaccine at least four weeks after the second vaccine dose.

The CDC recommends getting the same mRNA vaccine that was used for initial vaccination, but either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine is sufficient for a third dose.

People with cancer and weakened immune systems who have received three vaccine doses are also eligible for a booster dose of vaccine. People should obtain the booster dose at least three months after the third vaccine dose.

Any Vaccine Is Better Than None

The CDC prefers that people with cancer obtain either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines over J&J's Janssen vaccine. However, for people who cannot receive or do not want to receive the mRNA vaccine, the CDC stresses that any COVID-19 vaccine is better than being unvaccinated.

Summary

COVID-19 is a severe respiratory illness that can be more serious and even fatal in people with lung cancer. Vaccination is safe and effective for people with lung cancer and is encouraged to prevent severe disease and death.

Four different COVID-19 vaccines are available to help prevent infection. The Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Novavax vaccines are more effective and recommended for people with lung cancer. The J&J Janssen vaccine can be considered if the other options are not available.

Side effects from the vaccine are the same in people with lung cancer as without. They commonly include fever, chills, fatigue, nausea, and muscle aches. Allergic reactions are rare, but possible.

Since people with lung cancer usually have a weakened immune system, the CDC recommends three vaccine doses plus an additional booster shot.

A Word From Verywell

COVID-19 is dangerous for everyone, but it can be especially so for people with an underlying disease like lung cancer. People with cancer need all the protection they can get to prevent severe illness and death from COVID-19.

The COVID-19 vaccines are proven to be safe and effective, and all people with lung cancer are advised to be fully vaccinated and boosted. Though evidence does not suggest that vaccination interferes with cancer therapy, speak to your healthcare provider if you have concerns.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does COVID-19 affect the lungs?

    People with COVID-19 develop lung damage from the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself, and from the widespread inflammatory reaction that the body produces to fight the infection. The lungs fill up with fluid, leading to breathing problems. Most of the time, lung damage is contained, but some people develop severe disease that affects many parts of the lung.

  • Who is not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine?

    As of the writing of this article, the only people who are not eligible for COVID-19 vaccination are children younger than 5 years old. COVID-19 vaccines can be administered to most people with underlying medical conditions, including cancer, autoimmune diseases, a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome, HIV infection, or an immunocompromised state.

  • Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe?

    Yes, the COVID-19 vaccines are safe. Rare side effects and allergic reactions can occur. Guillain-Barré syndrome and a blood clotting disorder have been associated with the J&J vaccine, but these cases have been rare.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

19 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Christine Zink, MD
Dr. Christine Zink, MD, is a board-certified emergency medicine with expertise in the wilderness and global medicine. She completed her medical training at Weill Cornell Medical College and residency in emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She utilizes 15-years of clinical experience in her medical writing.