Published on March 16, 2020
With schools closing, businesses telling employees to stay home, and the NBA and NHL suspending their seasons over fears of spreading the coronavirus, panic and confusion have gripped many.
If you are a cancer patient, survivor or care partner, you likely have more questions than most.
Cancer treatment suppresses your immune system, which means patients are more susceptible to infections, such as the flu or COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Older people are also twice as likely to have serious COVID-19 illness.
“Patients with hematologic [blood] malignancies we believe will have the biggest risk,” said Dr. Steve Pergam, a clinical and infectious disease researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. He was quoted in an article published on the research center’s website. “Also, patients who are in active chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant patients. Those are the ones with the most profound immune deficits.”
A recent study published in the Lancet Oncology supports this. Out of 2,007 cases of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in China, researchers found 18 patients with a history of cancer—some who were currently in treatment. Nearly half of those patients had a higher risk of “severe events” (defined as admission to the ICU, the need for ventilation or death). However, some of them smoked and/or had other health issues, such as high blood pressure, diabetes or COPD, which make them more susceptible to infection.
The message that’s very clear,” Dr. Pergam said, “is that those who have co-morbidities are at an increased risk from this infection…They not only have cancer but respiratory, cardiac or other organ dysfunction, as well.”
He added: “Immunosuppressed and cancer patients should be extra cautious and treat this like a really bad flu season.”
Here’s what cancer patients, survivors and care partners may want to know:
The most commonly reported symptoms are fever, cough or feeling short of breath, according to the CDC. These may appear 2 to 14 days after exposure. If you develop any of these symptoms, be sure to call your doctor right away. He or she will ask screening questions to determine whether you should be tested.
If you are feeling really sick and planning to go to the hospital, be sure to call ahead and alert them that you are experiencing respiratory symptoms. That way they can take precautions to protect other patients and employees.
How the Virus Spreads
The coronavirus is spread much like the common cold of flu: between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet) or by respiratory droplets produced when someone infected with the virus coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled. You can also contract the virus by touching contaminated surfaces and then your eyes, nose or mouth.
Basic Steps to Preventing Infection
The best way to prevent COVID-19 is to avoid being exposed to the virus, according to the CDC. That means avoiding close contact with people who are sick. If COVID-19 is spreading in your community, put distance between yourself and other people, especially if you are at a higher risk of getting sick.
Other preventative measures include washing your hands for at least 20 seconds, (especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing), and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces daily, such as door knobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets and sinks.
Special Instructions for Cancer Patients
Cancer patients undergoing treatment should avoid crowds as much as possible, especially in enclosed settings with poor air circulation. If possible, they should avoid taking public buses or trains, postpone non-essential air travel and cruises, and use “social distancing” if someone in their family is sick.
Additionally, staying away from any places where crowds gather, such as the movies and restaurants, may be prudent, Dr. Pergam said.
“This doesn’t mean you have to be a hermit, just limit close interactions, particularly in public spaces.”
Even those who have completed treatment should take extra precautions, said Dr. Gary Lyman, an oncologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who was also quoted in the article.
“The after-effects of treatment don’t end when people finish their last course of therapy or leave the hospital after surgery,” he said. “The after-effects of cancer and the immunosuppressive effects of treatment can be long term.”
While you may not be able to control the spread of coronavirus (or your 401K), there are several things you can do to keep your immune system strong and healthy, both researchers said.
Sleep and eat well. Get regular exercise. And manage your stress.
For more information on the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak with updates from renowned doctors, researchers and experts, visit https://patientpower.info/patient-power-community/power-perspectives/coronavirus-how-you-can-count-on-patient-power.
Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.
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