The holidays can be a great time to spread cheer, decompress, and spend time with loved ones. But it can also be a difficult time of year for many reasons. For those facing cancer and are immune compromised, deciding whether to join festivities and parties can be hard. Balancing your own comfort with the wishes of your friends and family may be difficult. As COVID restrictions continue to change and vaccination rates rise, those around you might not understand why you might be hesitant to get together. It is not an easy conversation to navigate—especially for those facing cancer.
We recently sat down with Dr. Leighanne Parkes, infectious disease expert at McGill University, to learn more. As Dr. Parkes highlights, there are greater risks for women facing cancer to consider; immunocompromised people are more susceptible to health concerns, have a higher rate of prolonged illness and hospitalization rates, and are therefore more likely to pass illness to their loved ones.
Dr. Parkes notes that from a preventive standpoint, “we look at vaccines as the answer to the end of COVID, but what we’ve seen is that individuals who are immunocompromised have lower response rates to vaccines.” Dr. Parkes further adds that, “there is an 80% success rate in vaccination response for people with non-organ malignancy (leukemia for example) and 53% for those with organ malignancy (breast and lung cancer for example). That means these groups are less responsive to vaccination.” So, while the conversation around reopening continues to change, it centers around non-immune compromised people and should not be the standard for those facing cancer.
“The good public health advice from before the vaccine is still relevant for those with lower immunity. Keep six feet apart, continue to wear a triple-layer mask, decrease the number of your group get-togethers, practice good hand hygiene, and avoid poorly-ventilated spaces to avoid high-risk exposure” says Dr. Parkes, further adding that, “we have to remember that high-risk vaccinated individuals can still get sick.”
Remind your loved ones they are part of your “bubble”, part of your protective shield. Encourage them to get vaccinated, wear masks and gather in smaller groups.
These choices have direct benefits to you. Additionally, noting the hospitalization rates and lower vaccine efficacy for immunocompromised people to your loved ones can help provide nuance around personal choice if you choose not to attend.
Whether you forgo holiday celebrations altogether or request a smaller gathering—the choice is yours to make. There is no ‘one-size’ solution that will work for everyone. Dr. Parke’s general rule of thumb is to keep an eye on local numbers and judge the risk within your community. Consider your personal situation and follow any specific advice given to you by your medical team. While it can be difficult to set boundaries and possibly say ‘no’ to a loved one, your wellbeing and sense of self go a long way in your cancer journey.