February 8, 2022

We’ve put together some information and answers to frequently asked questions about the COVID-19 vaccination and cancer treatments during the pandemic.

The team at Bowel Cancer NZ are here to provide support. You’re able to contact our nurse by phoning 0800 BCNZ NURSE (226 968) or email: [email protected].

*Please remember if you have specific questions, to ask your medical team.

Cancer treatment:

Cancer treatment is essential and will continue at all COVID-19 Protection Framework (traffic light) levels. During the different alert levels, there are some things that will remain the same throughout. These include:

  • Hospitals will be looking to run outpatient appointments virtually where possible (eg, phone conversation or video call). You will be contacted by your cancer centre with the details.
  • If you have treatment scheduled, please attend this as normal unless you hear otherwise from your cancer centre.
  • If you have concerns about travelling or coming to hospital because of your health, please contact your cancer centre before your appointment or treatment.
  • If you are unwell, please phone your cancer centre to let them know.
  • If you are unwell with COVID-19 symptoms, please contact your doctor to discuss being tested for COVID-19.
  • Annual influenza (flu) vaccine – continue with this immunisation as recommended by your healthcare professional. Flu vaccination is free for people who are actively being treated for cancer.

Travelling for treatment:

You can travel anywhere between regions under the COVID-19 Protection Framework (traffic lights). If you are travelling into a different setting area, you will need to follow the guidance for that area when you are there. Further information can be found on the Ministry of Health website here.

FAQ regarding having treatment and the vaccination:

Are people with cancer more vulnerable to COVID-19?

  • Yes, they can be, just as cancer patients can be at greater risk of any sort of infection, especially those undergoing treatment/surgery. It could also be that the symptoms are greater in those with a cancer diagnosis.

I’m currently undergoing treatment, can I still have the vaccine?

  • Yes, you can. Please speak with your treating team (oncologist, surgeon, radiation oncologist) prior as they may want to time the vaccine to be given at a certain time within your cycle. We would also recommend that your whānau and support bubble are all vaccinated to help protect not just you, but others from COVID-19.

I finished my treatment a few weeks/months ago, should I have the vaccine?

  • Yes, you can. Once your treatment has finished your immune system rebounds over time and so it would be safe to have the vaccine. If you have concerns about whether or not you should have the vaccine, please speak with your usual doctor or treating team.

What are the side effects of the vaccine for those with cancer?

  • The general side effects are:
    – pain or swelling at the injection site
    – feeling tired or fatigued
    – headache
    – muscle aches
    – chills
    – joint pain
    – fever
    – redness at the injection site
    – nausea

There is no current evidence that side effects will be more or worse for those undergoing treatment or who have/ had cancer.

Will my bowel cancer treatment be affected?

  • If you are undergoing essential treatment like chemotherapy, radiation or such, your appointment will go ahead. However, you may need to allow more time for scanning in and registering. There may also be time changes as clinics seek to maintain physical distancing and not have too many patients in together. You will likely need to wear your mask and during the higher alert levels, no support person will be able to come in with you. The booking clerk/medical team will contact you regarding any changes.
  • Routine appointments with GP’s or the treating team may be done via telehealth rather than face-to-face, or you will be contacted about rescheduling the appointment.

What should I do if I become unwell or think I may have been exposed to COVID-19?

  • If you are currently receiving treatment and you become unwell, your medical team will give you information about what to do. If you have a fever and are receiving chemotherapy, you will need to follow the guideline issued when you commenced treatment.
  • It’s safe to come to the hospital. If you are sick the hospital is still the safest place to be.
  • Your GP is available for you if you are unwell and finished treatment. Call them and they may still be able to see you if necessary.
  • You can call Healthline if you have particular questions related to COVID-19 and feel you may have been exposed. They can be contacted on 0800 358 5453.
  • If you have been in contact with a potential COVID-19 place or person of interest, you will still require a swab and to self-isolate until results are back negative.

Will my immunity be affected by treatment?

  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can both impact your body’s ability to fight any infection, and you may well be in some way compromised for several months following the completion of your treatment.
  • Being aware of the signs of any infection, and following the protocols laid out by your team is very important. If you develop a fever, cough or other signs then please contact your medical team promptly to discuss your concerns and get the best advice. Keep regular blood tests as recommended to check white cell counts and keep taking prescribed medications. If you are wanting to add supplements, please check with your treating team prior to ensure they will not interfere with their therapies.

I’ve had lymph nodes removed as part of my surgery; will this impact my immunity?

  • Generally speaking, having had nodes removed will not impact greatly on your overall immunity.
  • If you are worried about this, please speak with your medical team, or call the BCNZ Nurse Support Coordinator on 0800 BCNZ NURSE (226 968).

Do I need a third primary dose of COVID-19 vaccine?

  • The Ministry of Health has recommended that individuals aged 12 years and older who are severely immunocompromised receive a third primary dose of Pfizer/BioNTech or AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. Not all cancer patients are recommended to have a third dose, as only some will be severely immunocompromised. Your cancer doctor or your primary care practitioner will use the Ministry of Health criteria to help you find out if you are eligible.

Criteria can be found here.

If I have a third primary dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, should I still get a booster after four months?

  • Yes. The third dose is not considered a booster dose. This means that if you have a third primary dose, you are also eligible for a booster dose after four months.

More information on booster doses can be found here.

What is the difference between a third primary dose and a booster?

  • A third primary dose is only recommended for people with cancer who are severely immunocompromised. This is to give your immune system a better chance of building protection to COVID-19. Your cancer doctor or primary care practitioner can help you work out if you need a third primary dose.
  • A booster dose is available to the general population four months after your primary vaccine doses. This is because it is likely that the immunity from the vaccine will slowly reduce over time. Those who have a third primary dose are also eligible for a booster.

Ministry of Health advice – Protecting yourself and your whānau against COVID-19 during the pandemic:

  • Get vaccinated (including having your booster when it is due)
  • Wear a face mask when out in public
  • Scan in using the NZ COVID Tracer app
  • Practice social distancing when out in public
  • Use basic hygiene – wash your hands regularly, sneeze and cough into your elbow, avoid touching your face, clean surfaces regularly.
  • Stay home if you’re sick (and call your cancer centre)

Please visit the Ministry of Health website for further information.

Information in Te Reo Māori is available on the COVID-19 website here.