If you have cancer, you may be at “high-risk” for COVID-19. According to the National Cancer Institute, this means that you may be more susceptible to infection and more prone to serious illness if you do contract the coronavirus.
It all comes down to a weakened immune response, which can be caused by cancer treatment or cancer itself. Your immune system, unfortunately, isn’t as strong as it could be, so you have to take extra precautions to protect yourself from coming into contact with the virus.
Understandably, you probably have questions about your risks and what you should do to protect them.
Here are a few that we have heard:
Are some cancer patients some more at risk than others?
Oncologists believe that patients with blood malignancies may have the most significant risk. Also, patients on active chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant patients may be more susceptible.
However, there is no easy way to determine who is immunosuppressed enough to be at higher risk. So, if you are having active chemotherapy, or your infection-fighting white cells are low, it is best to err on the side of caution.
Even post-treatment, cancer patients should be cautious about exposures. Being post-surgery or finished with immunosuppressive treatments doesn’t mean you are no longer at risk. Your immune system could still be compromised due to the aftereffects.
What should I do if I’ve had cancer and develop flu-like symptoms?
Most importantly, let your doctor know. He or she can assess the severity of your symptoms and help you decide if you need to go to the emergency room, or you can stay home for now.
It’s important not to overburden the health system if we can help it, but serious symptoms should be taken care of promptly. Call your general healthcare provider for medical advice if you develop a fever and experience symptoms such as persistent coughing or shortness of breath. Stay home and follow their advice and instruction.
Call 9-1-1 if you experience more severe symptoms like severe difficulty breathing, pain, or a feeling of pressure in your chest, confusion, blue lips/face, or any other very concerning symptom.
What if someone in my home becomes ill around me, the cancer patient?
You don’t want to ostracize your family, but you also don’t want to catch what they have. Step up your hand-washing and social distancing game. Have them sleep in a different room, and wipe down things they touch with bleach wipes. The Centers for Disease Control also recommends wearing mask to further decrease the risk of transmitting COVID-19.
What if I have an appointment for treatment?
Some cancer centers are barring visitors with their patients receiving chemotherapy or having cancer surgery. Even if they are permitted, don’t bring a sick family member with you to the treatment center.
Also, think through your transportation options for getting to the hospital or the treatment center. Most doctors suggest you avoid mass transit like buses or trains if possible and talk to the hospital about other options they might suggest. A family member who is not ill could drop you off and pick you up without going in. Some cancer centers have volunteer drivers, as well.
The CDC recommends that anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 wears a mask so you may be required to wear one. For instance, beginning Tuesday, April 7, anyone on the medical campus or any UHealth location should be wearing a surgical mask.
What if I am diagnosed with cancer during the COVID crisis? Should I get treatment?
The CDC recommends that patients reschedule elective surgeries at in-patient facilities if possible. The potential harm for delaying versus proceeding with surgery must be made on an individual basis with your oncologist. Some considerations they may factor in include the risk of cancer recurrence if therapy is delayed, modified or interrupted; the number of cycles of therapy already completed; and your tolerance of treatment.
Am I safe in a hospital treating COVID-19 patients?
While most medical centers are well-trained in caring for patients with complex health conditions and in infection prevention and control, your doctor may want to make alternative arrangements for your care.
- You might have surgery at an outpatient surgery center away from the general hospital.
- Chemotherapy might be given at an infusion center or in your own home.
Some of your treatment may be deferred if you and your doctor, on an individual basis, feel it can be done safely. Our doctors will always work for the best clinical outcome for each individual patient.
How Do I Deal with Cancer-Related Prescriptions?
If cancer surgery is delayed, in some cases therapy before surgery (neoadjuvant therapy) may be used instead, like chemotherapy, hormone or immune therapy, some of which are in oral form and others that need to be given at an infusion center.
If you are concerned about picking up prescriptions at a pharmacy, many of them now deliver or someone can pick them up for you.
What can I do to keep my immune system strong?
Oncologists say there are several things you can do to help optimize your immune system:
- Get 8 or more hours of sleep a night. Sleep deprivation can knock your immune system for a loop.
- Aerobic exercise, like walking or jogging, get the heart pumping and helps strengthen it.
- Get lots of fresh air when possible. It is healthier than closed areas and easier to do social distancing. A nice day also perks up your mood.
- Have the best diet you can. Doctors say that 70 to 80% of our immune system resides in the gut and is directly affected by our diet. Eating fruits and vegetables, lean protein and fiber are all helpful.
- Get your flu shot. Stay up to date on all your immunizations to protect you from germs that bring down your health.
- Make sure any other chronic conditions you have, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol are under control.
Where Can I Get Advice for Anxiety and Concerns?
People who either have recently received an earth-shattering cancer diagnosis and are preparing to undergo the necessary treatments or have been in remission for any amount of time, constantly face an uphill battle. Whether it’s the potentially crippling treatments or concerns of the disease returning or spreading, the anxiety likely never goes away.
The ever-changing developments during the last several weeks as the novel coronavirus has spread across the world has surely added to that anxiety. Having cancer and being concerned about the coronavirus can feel overwhelming. Patients should turn to reliable sources such as CDC.gov and their local health departments to get up-to-date information on COVID-19, and avoid websites that promise a quick fix or treatment to protect them from the virus.
Stress-management techniques will also help you weather this doubly difficult time. Reach out to friends and family, fitness professionals and your doctor about stress management techniques.
Compiled by contributors to UMiami Health News. Medically reviewed by Amber Thomassen, A.P.R.N.
On top of what to eat, with the current pandemic, there are concerns about picking up COVID-19 from infected cough/sneeze droplets left on grocery store items, hand-delivered food/groceries, and take-out from local restaurants. Lesley Klein, registered dietitian and clinical oncology dietitian, has simple tips to limit your exposure when bringing food and goods into your home from grocery stores and deliveries. Read more.