A First Responder and Survivor Weighs Pros and Cons of the COVID-19 Vaccines

Heal, Heal Winter 2021,

A cancer survivor debates getting the vaccine and seeks more information about its side effects.

In approximately four weeks, as I write this, I will have the option to receive a vaccine for COVID-19.

The vaccine is being offered to me because I work in a high-risk position as a first responder. It is optional for me to take the vaccine, so I need to ask myself: What are the pros and cons of getting it?

My reason for taking the vaccine would be to reduce the risk of severe complications related to contracting COVID-19. I observed a family member contract COVID-19 and end up in the hospital. Fortunately, remdesivir, the first drug authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat COVID-19, was available to my family member, along with a plasma treatment. Their lung function was affected, and it has taken time for them to build back up their physical stamina and lung function following hospitalization.

READ MORE: Expert Breaks Down Misconceptions About COVID-19 Vaccine

Prior to getting the vaccine, one of the first things I will do is talk to a couple of my health care providers regarding their thoughts on the vaccines. I want to know if, in their opinion, getting the vaccine is recommended considering my medical history with cancer. What I will be weighing with my medical team is the benefits of taking the vaccine (even with potential side effects) versus contracting the virus.

I assume they will say I should take the vaccine or else live with the risk of experiencing the full effects if I contract COVID-19, which, according to antibody testing, I have not contracted already. What are some of the potential side effects of the vaccine? They include pain at the injection site, fatigue, muscle aches or pain, joint pain, headache and fever, which would be short-lived, according to the recent authorization of the vaccine by the FDA.

Two separate injections are given approximately one month apart. Earlier this year, I was due to receive a vaccine for pneumonia, and I was encouraged to also get a flu shot, which I have not received for almost 10 years. I received both the flu and pneumonia vaccines plus the initial vaccine for shingles, which also is given in two separate injections. I was surprised to learn I could receive all three at the same appointment. My side effects included stomach upset, loss of appetite and a headache that lasted around 24 hours.

The benefit is, hopefully, to have few or no problems with pneumonia or the flu and never get shingles. I would hope the COVID-19 vaccine would give me the same level of protection, but I will ask if it is known how long potential immunity or partial immunity will last. To be honest, COVID-19 worries me because the virus seems to affect lung function along with sometimes causing other unusual symptoms that seem more severe than your typical flu.

READ MORE: The Double Whammy of Cancer and COVID-19 on Mental Health

My other concerns about not getting vaccinated include being able to get proper medical care and attention during increased demand on the health care system for COVID-19 treatments. Also, I worry about getting supportive treatment if I get COVID-19 while traveling. I would like to resume a more normal lifestyle in 2021 and get back to traveling and enjoying life more fully.

I also see and hear about providers who are getting burned out and are at risk for infection every time they treat a new patient. I do not want to add to that risk. One of my biggest concerns is not wanting to pass COVID-19 to someone who might be immunocompromised. I am now NED (no evidence of disease) but still have a higher risk for severe complications because of my asthma.

I will feel better about helping to protect the community that I live in if I am vaccinated. I don’t look forward to possibly getting ill from a vaccine, but perhaps the payoff will be having fewer negative complications and avoiding hospitalization due to the side effects of COVID-19.

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