The Cancer Patient’s Guide to Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Health Conditions

The Cancer Patient’s Guide to Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Ilima Loomis
By Ilima Loomis
Apr 06, 2020
Lady looking out a window suffering from cancer

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is causing stress and worry for everyone. But if you have cancer, are currently in treatment, or are recovering, you may have special concerns. Does having cancer put you at greater risk? Is it safe to go to your medical appointments? What happens if your treatment plan is interrupted?

It’s well known that cancer and cancer treatments weaken your immune system, so it makes sense to feel concerned. However, by staying informed and taking extra precautions, you can help protect yourself, and reduce your risk.

Here’s what you need to know:

Are Cancer Patients at Higher Risk of COVID-19?

There’s still a lot of information scientists don’t know about COVID-19 and why it seems to affect some people differently than others. But early data and reports from outbreaks in China and Italy indicate that coronavirus can be especially dangerous for people with pre-existing medical conditions, including people with cancer.

Experts say that people with blood cancers like leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and multiple myeloma likely have a higher risk than other types of cancer because these cancers are especially hard on the immune system. That’s also true for patients who are actively in treatment for any type of cancer, or who have had a bone marrow transplant.

What about survivors? Cancer can have long-term effects on a person’s immune system, so cancer survivors may still be at higher risk. It’s a good idea to take extra precautions even if you are a survivor.

What Should Cancer Patients Do to Protect Themselves From COVID-19?

There’s currently no vaccine that can prevent the coronavirus disease and no treatment for people who get sick. That means the best way cancer patients can protect themselves is to avoid getting exposed to the virus.

If there is an outbreak in your community, the CDC recommends that people in high-risk groups take these precautions:

  • Stay at home and shelter in place as much as possible
  • Make sure you have enough medication and supplies to last for several weeks
  • If you have to go out in public, avoid crowds
  • Avoid nonessential air travel

Other steps cancer patients and others should take to reduce the spread of infection include staying away from social gatherings and avoiding contact with people who are sick; avoiding handshakes and other close contact; washing hands frequently with soap and water; and avoiding touching the eyes, nose, and mouth.

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How Will Coronavirus Affect Cancer Treatment?

Hospitals around the U.S. are canceling elective surgeries and postponing all but the most urgent medical procedures to prepare for a wave of coronavirus cases, and some experts have warned that many cancer patients will see their treatment disrupted in the coming weeks.

Whether or not to continue cancer treatment during the pandemic is an individual decision that will have to be made on a case by case basis. Doctors and oncology care teams will look at each patient and determine whether the risks of delaying treatment are outweighed by the benefits of staying home.

For some appointments, you might be able to consult with your doctor via telemedicine services (which now have temporary expanded coverage under Medicare). And in some cases, your doctor might recommend that you or your caregivers administer chemotherapy drugs at home.

Every case is different, so talk with your doctor and ask questions about how to approach treatment during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Staying Healthy During The Pandemic

There’s a lot you can’t control about coronavirus and how the pandemic affects your community, but there are still things you can do to keep your immune system as strong as possible while you’re treated for cancer:

  • Get at least 7 hours of sleep a night, since sleep plays a big role in keeping your body healthy.
  • Try to keep up a healthy diet, with enough fruits, vegetables and protein, even if your cancer treatment reduces your appetite.
  • Move your body and get regular exercise when your treatment allows.
  • Look for ways to manage stress.

Stress can lower the immune system and make you more vulnerable to illness. If you’re dealing with cancer at the same time as you’re navigating the coronavirus crisis, you’re probably facing a lot of stress.

Be proactive about managing stress and taking care of your mental health during this time, whether that means making time for self-care, scheduling teletherapy sessions, or taking advantage of some of the free mental health resources available online.

Tips for Cancer Caregivers

It’s not just cancer patients who need to take extra steps to protect themselves from coronavirus. Caregivers and family members also need to take additional precautions, because if they get sick, they could infect the person with cancer. Here are steps caregivers can take during the pandemic to ensure safety:

  • Talk with the oncology team about the treatment plan and whether treatment should be postponed.

  • If the patient continues treatment, only one caregiver should accompany them to the appointment.

  • If you get sick, isolate yourself from the cancer patient and other caregivers, and don’t go to the cancer treatment center.

  • Stay home as much as possible, and avoid unnecessary travel.

  • Wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after eating, using the bathroom, and coughing or sneezing.

  • If you go out, wash your hands with soap and water as soon as you get home, wipe down any items you’ve brought into the home (including your purse, wallet, and phone) and then wash your hands again.

  • Use a household disinfectant to regularly clean frequently-touched surfaces at home, like door knobs, light switches, remote controls, and phones.

If you’re worried about how coronavirus could affect your cancer treatment, you’re not alone. Across the country, cancer patients, caregivers, and health care providers are dealing with the same concerns. While there might not be easy answers right now there are resources available to help people navigate the crisis. By working with your doctor and taking extra precautions, you’ll be able to stay as healthy as possible in the weeks and months to come.

Ilima Loomis

Ilima Loomis

Ilima Loomis is a freelance writer and journalist who specializes in writing about health care, HR, science, travel, and Hawaii. You can find more of her work at Ilima is a regular contributor to the RxSaver blog.

The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.

If you are in crisis or you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.