‘They cannot wait’: Quebec cancer doctors say their patients need vaccines, now

MONTREAL — Quebec’s vaccine priority list is based, above all, on age. But a growing number of voices are pushing for that to change—especially cancer doctors.

They’d like to see cancer patients who are actively in treatment bumped up in the priority lineup, not just soon, but now, to get their shots alongside the elderly.

“The issue for cancer patients… is that they cannot wait,” said Dr. Thierry Alcindor, chief of medical oncology at the McGill University Health Centre.

Right now, people under 60 with pre-existing conditions are second to last on Quebec’s vaccine priority list, coming in above only the young and healthy.

Last week, the province’s association of hematological and oncological specialists sent a letter asking the head of Quebec’s vaccination campaign to consider that an infection “represents a major risk” for cancer patients.

But also last week, they were told it’s just not the strategy right now, despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. has recommended giving cancer patients high priority.

“Unfortunately, we were told that last week that only the age was the criteria” for deciding who was considered “vulnerable,” said the head of the association, Dr. Martin Champagne.

“So… cancer patients are not being prioritized beside the factor of age, which is, from a medical perspective, not a good option, in my view,” he said.

There’s been no response to the letter. When asked, the provincial health ministry told CTV News that authorities might address the question in Tuesday’s press conference.

Champagne said there’s widespread support for the change among Quebec’s cancer doctors.

“We’re not doing politics here—we’re doing medically sound support of our patients,” Champagne said. “We know that they are fragile and need to be protected.”

Many people with health conditions face serious consequences if they contract COVID-19, but cancer patients have special reasons for needing the vaccine’s protection, they and their doctors argue.

For one thing, their state of health after years of treatment isn’t necessarily so far from an elderly, healthy person, one woman pointed out.

“Even young adults that are going through any type of treatment for cancer, it’s like they’re older,” said Deborah Bridgman. “We age when we have treatment.”

Bridgman was first diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 30, and she’s now 57. The years of treatment take a deep toll on the body, and she’s now on an oral chemotherapy.

“I’ve been dealing with cancer for 27 years,” she said. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to die of COVID.”

Doctors also say that keeping cancer patients out of hospital is important not just for their own sake but to keep the health system afloat. 

That also means vaccinating those who care for them day to day, said the letter sent to the province.

“The vaccination of caregivers for these patients, and all patients kept at home, is essential to reduce the impact on hospital resources, which you know are already fragile,” the letter said.

“We hope that vulnerable populations will be prioritized regardless of age.”

Champagne told CTV News that cancer patients are not only at higher risk of dying from COVID, but they are more likely to be hospitalized with the virus than anyone else. 

Patients in particular who are in active treatment need to be considered at a very high risk, he said, even if others could have their shots postponed.

“By itself, cancer is immunosuppressive,” he said. 

“If you add on top of this some active treatments such as immunotherapy, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, your ability to defend against infection might be lower.”

He also said that cancer patients are well aware of their own immune risks and have been living accordingly for the last year, which hasn’t been easy.

“There have been a number of surveys, and the level of stress since the COVID infection in March last year is very, very high among cancer patients,” he said.

“I know in my practice many patients tell me they don’t even get out ever, because they’re so afraid of the COVID, so… the level of stress is amongst the highest you can imagine right now amongst these patients.”

More than that, some cancer patients who have contracted COVID-19 have had their cancer treatments delayed, creating a worrying knock-on effect, said Alcindor of the MUHC.

This is a very big group—the Quebec Cancer Foundation estimates that almost 60,000 Quebecers were diagnosed with cancer just last year. But the doctors say the province should consider their logic.

“Their situation is quite different from other healthy people who ask for prioritization—this is from a medical point of view,” said Champagne. 

“These patients should not be postponed.”


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