Why are cancer patients considered vulnerable to COVID-19?
“Cancer patients are considered a vulnerable population because some cancer treatments weaken the immune system,” explains Dr. Coscio. Chemotherapy and other treatments lower their ability to overcome not only COVID-19 but other viral and bacterial infections as well.
While cancer patients have a higher risk in general, the degree of risk depends on the stage and status of their cancer.
“A recent study showed that patients with lung cancer, blood cancers, and cancers that have spread to several organs have an increased risk of having complications from COVID-19,” says Dr. Rimawi.
And if you are undergoing chemotherapy, there are times during the treatment cycle when you are even more vulnerable to viral infections.
“Every chemotherapy regimen is different and is given at different intervals. Generally speaking, the period in the middle of a cycle is where your immune system is at the lowest point,” he continues.
So, for example, if you receive chemotherapy every two weeks, your immune system is most vulnerable around days 6-9.
“Patients should ask their doctor about their most at-risk time frame based on the chemotherapy drugs they are receiving,” advises Dr. Coscio.
Is it safe to go to the hospital for cancer treatment?
If you have to travel in for treatment, discuss whether the risk of travel outweighs the benefit of timely treatment with your oncologist. Patients who have a followup appointment but are not coming in for treatment should first contact their doctor to determine whether a virtual visit may be appropriate. If that is not an option, ask whether it would be safe to postpone the followup.
If you do need to make the trek to the hospital, Dr. Coscio recommends optimizing every trip.
“When necessary to come for treatments, the number of visits should be minimized. For example, when possible, the doctor visit and the chemotherapy treatment should be the same day,” she says.
“Our facilities have very thorough processes for sanitation and disinfection as well as social distancing to maintain the safety of our patients and our staff. When appropriate, you can also have a video consultation or telephone appointment with your doctor,” notes Dr. Rimawi. “It is important, however, to cover your face and practice social distancing.”
At both locations of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Center, we screen everyone who comes into the hospital, limit visitors, offer virtual visits when possible, minimize the number of on-site staff, and follow CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of infectious disease.
How can cancer patients protect themselves from COVID-19?
Cancer patients should strictly follow all precaution recommendations made to the general public. Dr. Coscio reminds us of these important guidelines.
“Cancer patients should avoid public places when possible and stay home. Person-to-person contact should be avoided when possible. Cancer patients and those around them should wash hands frequently, for at least 20 seconds with soap; handwashing should always be done after any person-to-person contact, before eating, before and after touching the face, after coughing or sneezing, and after touching anything in a public place (i.e., doors, shopping carts, etc.),” she says.
Family members and close contacts should follow these precautions as well.
“The highest risk factor for contracting COVID-19 is exposure from an infected family member. It is the entire family’s responsibility to keep the cancer patient safe,” she adds.
It’s also a good idea to keep at least two weeks’ worth of medication, food, and supplies on hand when possible. Make sure you have an updated list of all medications and chemotherapy administrations (including dates), as this would be important to have on hand should you require emergency care.
What should cancer patients do if they experience symptoms of COVID-19?
Dr. Rimawi advises cancer patients who experience COVID-19 symptoms to call their oncologist right away rather than immediately coming to the office.
“Staff can either direct them to come in, send them to a testing location, or direct them to the emergency room. If a patient is having severe symptoms and can’t wait, call 911,” he says.
Again, in the event of an emergency, have your medication list and chemotherapy administration record available.
For more information, visit the National Institutes of Health website or the Centers for Disease Control website. Another resource, our oncology teams at St. Luke’s Health are always here to support you.