A Pep Talk On COVID-19 Vaccinations From a Cancer Survivor

"Some experiences we have as cancer survivors may help inspire those reluctant to get or complete COVID-19 vaccinations to follow through. We are all role models for each other."

One goal in this pandemic is herd immunity, a goal that remains elusive in part because of reluctance to vaccinate. With a surprising number of people in the United States missing a second dose of their Moderna or Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines (about 8% according to news reports), health professionals are now trying to find ways to encourage citizens to finish as well as to vaccinate in the first place. I have been thinking about how cancer survivors can encourage this reluctant population. What lessons might we share from our experiences to inspire others?

For one thing, for the Moderna and Pfizer, you need only one more shot after a first injection. Two shots are a drop in the bucket of health. Chemo is more complicated. With chemo, for example, I took weekly infusions for six months and then finished the last six months with a treatment every three weeks (and radiation in the middle of all this). This regimen taught me discipline.

My experience taught me how to weave medical procedures into the fabric of life. I have known survivors who had to be in treatment for far longer. People reluctant to get or to complete a vaccination might want to consider that two is a small number. Plus, there is a vaccine that only requires one injection (Johnson & Johnson).

Another lesson is the fact that we need to finish a round of medicine for it to work. That is common sense as well as medical wisdom. We know that when we are prescribed antibiotics.

Survivors also know that with chemo, the whole course is essential (unless somebody is not able to complete it for some reason). My chemo was every week at the same time. Once, I had to reschedule in order to attend to an emergency with my mother. Fortunately, I was able to get back into my chemo cubby within five hours and did not have to delay as much as I feared. If circumstances mean missing a vaccine, reschedule.

Another reason people may delay involves side effects. Some have no side effects, while others do. I had significant immune responses to both of my injections, although nothing to worry about. I will admit that after the first strong response, I was hoping that the second reaction would be easier, but I would not have missed that shot.

The second immune response was worse. As I am retired, I was fortunate to be able to stay home to get through a day of feeling awful. I knew how to be patient with that feeling from experiencing side effects of chemo. For people worried about missing work, scheduling a shot on a Friday is a good idea.

Then, for some, there is that drama of the injection. Shots are not especially fun, even with the gentlest of persons injecting an arm. You can get used to them, though. Twenty-four hours after a full round of chemo, I would get an injection of a drug intended to keep my white blood count up. This drug made my bones ache as if I had the flu (on top of side effects from chemo). I did this for six months.

I guess what I am saying here is that cancer survivors are role models. If we can juggle shots and infusions in hopes of surviving a dire illness, getting a vaccination in hopes of avoiding a dire illness and stopping a pandemic sounds like a noble cause for healthy folks.

There are a few caveats here. At times, the avoidance of the vaccine or a second injection of a vaccination may entail a bonafide medical reason. Just as some people who begin chemo cannot continue, we can respect that some of us may not fare well with vaccinations. The CDC is following such cases to learn more about COVID-19 vaccines.

I am reminded of my mother, whose body was not able to handle chemotherapy. Cancer treatment teaches us that drugs, including the COVID-19 vaccine, are not always one-size-fits-all. All we can do is what works for us.

That point leads to a final concern. Just as some of us are lucky to be able to be vaccinated, not everybody is able to take any dose of the vaccination. We need to trust medical professionals with their advice. If those in active cancer treatment or others with health contraindications are not able to be vaccinated, it is up to the rest of us to do our part to help with herd immunity as we safeguard our own health.

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