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What cancer patients need to know before getting the COVID-19 vaccine

By LAI S. REYES, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 08, 2021 4:00 pm

The COVID-19 vaccine brings a ray of hope, especially to individuals who have spent the pandemic fighting cancer.

“It’s the best way to protect high-risk individuals like them against the dreaded coronavirus,” says Paul Perez, president of the Cancer Coalition of the Philippines.

Evidence shows that cancer patients, who are in active chemotherapy or intensive radiotherapy, are particularly vulnerable to contract COVID-19, as these treatments weaken the immune system further. And with the ongoing pandemic, care for their condition — and their lives — has been put on hold. 

The availability of the (COVID-19) vaccine in the country — which seems “so near and yet so far” — marks the start of a new chapter in their lives and a chance to embrace life once more.

“When I got diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, I drew strength from the Lord and my family,” shares cancer survivor Bibeth Orteza.

 Bibeth Orteza, cancer survivor

And during that darkest time of her life, she got the assurance from her son.

“He told me not to worry,” adds Bibeth.

“You will get well, Mama," Bibeth's son assured her.

"When I asked him what makes him so confident, he replied: ‘Because the word mother is embedded in chemotherapy.”’

Others might find it corny, but for a cancer patient and mother like Bibeth, those words of assurance from the person you love “fuel our desire to continue the fight against the Big C despite the odds. And yes, amid the pandemic.”

While experts agree that high-risk groups (like cancer patients and others with underlying medical conditions) should be prioritized for immunizations, it’s crucial to talk with your oncologists for them to determine the best vaccination plan for you.

“Based on the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) Guidelines, the COVID-19 vaccination should be given to all cancer patients,” noted Philippine Cancer Society president Dr. Corazon Ngelangel during a virtual forum, which put a spotlight on the current plight of cancer patients in the country.

 Dr. Corazon Ngelangel, president of Phil. Cancer Society

For patients who had bone marrow transplants and those who had CAR T-cell therapy, which is used to treat certain blood cancers, Dr. Ngelangel recommends getting the vaccine two weeks after.

“By that time, your immune system can already respond to the vaccine,” explains the lady doctor.

“For those with blood tumors like leukemia, they can get the vaccine during active treatment,” explains the lady doctor.

For cancer patients who have undergone surgery, it’s best to get the vaccine two weeks later.

“The reason for this is to better manage the side effects — if there are any,” notes Dr. Ngelangel. “If you give the vaccine before the surgery and the patient develops side effects after, it would be hard to tell where he/she got them. Was it because of the surgery or the vaccine?”

As for patients undergoing chemotherapy, radiation or targeted therapy, they can have their shots after the session. “It’s best to give the vaccine two weeks after. But if you need to get the vaccine right away, you can have it during the radiation for as long as your WBC is okay,” advises Dr. Ngelangel. “Your doctor can also give the vaccine, together with your immunotherapy drug.”

The lady doctor adds that any COVID-19 vaccine is okay, “as long as they’re approved and licensed by the FDA.”

Are we there yet?

With the theme “Cancer Conversations: Navigating Cancer with Patients,” the forum also revisited the implementation of the National Integrated Cancer Control Act (NICCA), an internationally acclaimed law for comprehensively mapping the path forward to strengthen cancer control, increase survivorship, and reduce the burden on patients and families.

The World Health Organization has projected that by 2030, the incidence of cancer cases in low Medium Human Development Index countries like the Philippines will increase by as much as 80 percent.

When the law was signed, patient groups in other countries congratulated the Philippines as the NICCA is one — if not the first — in Southeast Asia.

“And if we look beyond Southeast Asia, I think it’s only Japan who’s way ahead of us, passing the cancer law in 2007,” notes Paul Perez, president of the Cancer Coalition of the Philippines.

But having the law signed is one thing; implementing the law is another.

“And in the era of the coronavirus, it’s really challenging,” Perez adds.

The World Health Organization has projected that by 2030, the incidence of cancer cases in low Medium Human Development Index (HDI) countries like the Philippines will increase by as much as 80%.

“That’s only nine years from now. Should we wait for it to come before we even act?” asks Perez.

The situation is viewed by public health practitioners, oncologists and cancer communities here and abroad as a ticking time bomb that could lead to a high incidence of undiagnosed cancer cases, issues with the progression of the disease, deaths and unnecessary complications.

“The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the strengths and weaknesses of our healthcare system,” laments Perez.

 Paul Perez, president of Cancer Coalition Phils.

In addition to this, cancer patients and their families are looking forward to a hopeful life journey because equitable and affordable cancer treatment and care are provided for under the cancer law.

NICCA was enacted in 2019, but its implementation was perhaps hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Two years have quickly passed. 

“And, like children on a road trip, at every turn we say: ‘Are we there yet?’” says Dr. Ngelangel.

RA 11215 is an act institutionalizing a national integrated cancer-control program and appropriating funds thereof.

“So there must be adequate funds — year in, year out,” she says. “The legislative body has appropriated the cancer assistance fund in the amount of P700 million. We’ll go from there. We’ll start small — covering priority cancers — and take on more as we go forward. We’re aiming for the 30% reduction in mortality. We can’t achieve this goal if we fall short of the baseline budget.”

And so, together with the Department of Health, the Pharmaceutical & Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP), the Cancer Coalition Philippines shares in the call for NICCA’s full implementation.

“So that patients — and their families — need not wait anymore,” Perez adds.

Banner and thumbnail caption: The COVID-19 vaccine provides a ray of hope for cancer patients. - —Photo from diplomaticourier.com.