Woman with advanced breast cancer gets COVID-19 vaccine after weighing benefits, risks

Judy Lee of LaGrange, Georgia, has always been good about getting her yearly mammogram.

After she came in for her routine appointment in June 2019, a radiologist flagged something.

"It was just a normal mammogram," Lee said.  "I had no symptoms at all. And, they called me back and said, 'Hmm. We see something we didn't see last year.'"

Woman and man pose while sitting on a bench. She has shoulder length hair and glasses. He has grey hair and a beard. They are smiling.

Judy and John Lee of LaGrange, Georgia. (Lee Family photo)

Lee went to Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Newnan, where she underwent a mastectomy, and learned she had stage four, or metastatic, breast cancer.

She started oral chemotherapy, then underwent radiation.

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Then the pandemic hit, forcing Lee and her husband John to isolate at home for her safety.

That meant they could not see their three children and grandchildren for months.

"All of last summer, we didn't see anybody," she said.  "Christmas and Thanksgiving were very different this year, just the two of us."

CTCA photo

Women wearing face mask sits in exam room looking at a laptop computer with a health care provider, who is also wearing a mask.

When Lee read about the new COVID-19 vaccines, she was intrigued, but her husband was not.

At the time, she says, they did not know anyone who had the coronavirus; it was something they saw only on TV.

"My husband initially wasn't going to get the vaccine," Lee said.  "But, in December, we had several friends that got COVID.  And, that scared both of us."

Still, Lee had questions.

The early research on the COVID-19 vaccines involved healthy adult volunteers, not people undergoing cancer treatment or on medications that can suppress their immune systems.

So, it is not clear how well the vaccines will protect people going through cancer treatment.

"I asked my oncologist, I said, 'Should I do this? Will it affect what I'm already going through? Will it affect my medicine?'" She remembers.  "He said, ‘Absolutely get it, absolutely get it. You need the protection.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’"

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CTCA Newnan Chief of Staff  Dr. Jeff Metts says he has talked with many cancer patients wondering whether the vaccine is a good fit for them.

"Every day, multiple times a day, we're asked that question," Dr. Metts said.  "It's a reasonable question, right?"

Metts says he tells cancer patients more than 100,000 volunteers tested the 3 FDA-authorized vaccines in clinical trials, which, he says, were proven both safe and highly effective. 

Still, he says, the decision about whether to get vaccinated often involves an ongoing conversation between patients and their health providers.

"It's often not the first or second time you talk about it, that you make a decision," he said.  "It's the third or the fourth (time). So, you have to have that consistency of messaging. And, there's a lot of people who said, 'I might be interested, but I don't want to go first.'  So, for our center, as one of the leaders here, I went first."

Because the Lees are both over 65, they were among the first Georgians offered the vaccine.

She got her Pfizer shots in January and February, the first in her eight-member breast cancer support group on Zoom to get vaccinated.

"I said, 'Ladies, we're all vulnerable here,'" Lee remembers.  "'I encourage it. I'm fine. I had it. I'm still here.'"

Now that they are both fully vaccinated, Lee says they have been able to celebrate Easter together with their children and grandchildren.

They have also returned to in-person services at their church.

"I'm looking forward to getting things back to normal," Lee says.  "Everybody needs the vaccine!  I want to be able to see people and travel!"

If you are undergoing treatment for cancer, the American Cancer Society recommends talking to your oncologist about the benefits and risks of getting vaccinated.

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