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How COVID-19 Affects Cancer Treatment

Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on April 20, 2020

Cancer and cancer treatment both weaken your immune system, which makes it easier for you to get infections. Even if you’re being careful to avoid getting sick, COVID-19 is a concern when you visit a doctor's office or treatment center. But you still need treatment for your cancer.

Many medical experts recommend that most patients with cancer or a history of cancer should get a COVID-19 vaccine. What else should you do?

Talk to Your Doctor

Your doctor knows your situation best and can help you make the right decisions. Things to think about include:

  • The type of cancer you have
  • How fast the cancer is growing
  • The goal of your treatment (whether it's to cure, control, manage symptoms, or keep cancer from coming back)
  • How the treatment you’re getting affects your risk for infection
  • Your overall health
  • Other treatment options

Experts agree that treatment should continue when there’s a chance to cure your cancer. But when the risks of COVID-19 outweigh the benefits of treatment, it may be best to delay it for a while. Other options might be to use:

How Will I Stay Safe During Cancer Treatments?

Your doctor's office or treatment center might call you a day or two before your visit to pre-screen you for symptoms of COVID-19. They'll ask you several questions to find out if you might have COVID-19. And they'll probably take your temperature before you're allowed in the building.

Most treatment centers are not allowing visitors to be with patients during treatment. Fewer appointments may be available because cutting down the number of patients helps reduce contact between people. You may also notice fewer chairs in waiting rooms and treatment areas. This is done to help keep people apart.

Everyone in the treatment area should be wearing a mask, whether or not they are vaccinated. You’ll need to wear one, too. Bring a cloth mask with you to your appointment and wear it over your nose and mouth.

What Else Is Being Done to Protect Me?

One big change is the way doctors and patients communicate. Instead of going into the office between treatments, you may have a telehealth visit. Online videos, phone calls, and patient portals are playing a bigger role in health care than ever before. These allow you to "meet" with your doctor from the safety of your home.

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Many health workers have gotten special training on how to protect themselves. Some medical facilities are screening and doing temperature checks of their employees. They’re enforcing strict stay-home policies for those who are sick. Most require workers to:

  • Wear masks
  • Stagger their breaks to maintain social distancing
  • Disinfect rooms and equipment more often than usual

You may notice reminder signs and hand-sanitizing stations around your treatment center. Don’t hesitate to use them.

How Can I Protect Myself?

The best thing you can do is to carefully follow the recommended safety steps. Have the people you live with follow them, too. Here are some things you can do to help avoid the new coronavirus:

  • Stay home as much as possible.
  • If you do go out, stay at least 6 feet away from others and avoid gatherings.
  • Talk with your doctor about setting up telehealth visits for your treatment follow-up.
  • Work with your treatment team to limit in-person visits.
  • Contact your insurance company to find out if you can get home care for things like pump disconnection, growth factor shots, or having blood drawn for lab tests.

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Try to stay as healthy as possible to avoid infection. Here are some things you can do:

If you live with someone who gets coronavirus symptoms, stay away from them and disinfect surfaces often to decrease your risk of infection. If you have symptoms like a fever, coughing, and shortness of breath, call your doctor's office. They will give you instructions and tell you how to get tested.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

National Cancer Institute: "Coronavirus: What People with Cancer Should Know."

JAMA: "Oncology Practice During the COVID-19 Pandemic."

The Lancet Oncology: "Cancer guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic."

American Society for Radiation Oncology: "COVID-19 Recommendations and Information Summary."

CDC: "Implementing Safety Practices for Critical Infrastructure Workers Who May Have Had Exposure to a Person with Suspected or Confirmed COVID-19," "Clinical Questions about COVID-19: Questions and Answers; COVID-19 Risk," "Staying Healthy During Cancer Treatment."

Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network: "Managing Cancer Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Agility and Collaboration Toward a Common Goal," "Improving COVID-19 Safety for Cancer Patients and Healthcare Providers," "Safety at the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic: How to Keep our Oncology Patients and Healthcare Workers Safe."

Journal of Geriatric Oncology: "Challenges with the management of older patients with cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Journal of Immunology Research: "The Bidirectional Relationship between Sleep and Immunity against Infections."

American Cancer Society: "What Are Sleep Problems?"

American Society of Clinical Oncology: "Coronavirus and COVID-19: What People With Cancer Need to Know."

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