International Policy Digest

Photo illustration by John Lyman
Health /09 Apr 2020
04.09.20

5 Things Cancer Patients Should Know About COVID-19

COVID-19 is changing the way people live. From daily lives to medical requirements, coronavirus is challenging it all. One of the main areas for concern is the spread of the virus. Those who are immunocompromised or have weakened immune systems are at risk, including cancer patients.

The details and risk factors get more specific in terms of contracting the disease, so it’s essential to understand your standing in the pandemic. Here is what you should know if you are a cancer patient in the era of COVID-19.

What is COVID-19?

First, it’s necessary to understand what the virus is and how it spreads. COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. From there, it spread to countries in Europe and throughout the United States, which are now facing higher numbers than China initially saw. From March 11, 2020, onwards, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus to be a pandemic, meaning it’s prevalent throughout the world.

This disease has a range of effects. While some people are asymptomatic carriers, others may get seriously ill or die. The symptoms are similar to that of the flu or the common cold since it’s a respiratory infection. However, the effects can be worse, depending on your health.

If you are a cancer patient, you may be wondering about your risk level. It commonly affects those who are older and have compromised immune systems. For cancer patients, this could be an area of concern based on your stage of treatment.

Are you at risk?

Certain health factors can increase your chance of contracting the novel coronavirus. Older people, those with pre-existing conditions like asthma or heart disease and those who have weakened immune systems are most at risk. As a cancer patient, you may be at risk in two ways.

First, certain cancer treatments like chemotherapy will weaken your immune system during treatment. With COVID-19, this is an area for serious caution. For instance, during times when you require heavier doses, such as anti-tumor metabolism treatments, you will face more immunosuppression.

Additionally, if you have cancer, developing another illness like COVID-19 could add to the effects or complications of your disease. Since it’s highly contagious, you’ll want to take aggressive preventative steps for yourself or your loved ones.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of the coronavirus are similar to those of a common cold or the flu. Since it’s a respiratory disease, people may have a dry cough, fever, fatigue and sore throat. Commonly, people are temporarily losing their senses of taste and smell as well. For cancer patients, specifically, doctors have seen lower levels of lymphocytes in the blood in addition to more inflammation in the body. They have also noted decreases in protein levels in the blood alongside anemia.

Difficulty breathing is a symptom many people may face but could worsen for those struggling with cancer. Additionally, because of weakened immune systems, cancer patients are more susceptible to respiratory illnesses like pneumonia, which COVID-19 can result in.

If you are exhibiting symptoms, have been exposed to or have contracted the disease, you should contact your doctor immediately. If you have mild symptoms, you should still speak with your care provider to formulate a plan for monitoring.

How can you protect yourself?

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine or official treatment for COVID-19 yet. However, there are preventative steps you can take to protect yourself or those close to you.

First, if you can, avoid gatherings of any size until governments loosen restrictions on social distancing and quarantines. Also, avoid unnecessary contact with anyone who isn’t in your immediate household. Keep from touching your face as much as possible, too.

Social distancing has proven to be successful in slowing the spread or flattening the curve. This precaution includes avoiding travel and crowds, staying at least six feet away from people if you must go out, and remaining at home otherwise. Plus, if you haven’t gotten a flu shot, officials suggest it’s a good way to cover your bases.

Specific to cancer patients, you will want to have a sufficient supply of medicine to last you for weeks or months. You can get your medication shipped to you as well. However, if you’re concerned about needing treatment during this epidemic, there are still things you can do.

How can you receive care?

One of the most vital developments to come from the pandemic is telehealth, also known as telemedicine. With this digital network, doctors and patients can connect through apps, video or voice calls. This setup will be beneficial for those who don’t need to see a doctor but still require checkups. Government officials have relaxed restrictions on telehealth communication, so it should be more accessible for those who need it.

Some health experts may suggest spacing treatments farther apart, reducing chemotherapy to lower immune system risks or stopping until the virus starts to diminish. These factors depend on your health and stage of cancer.

Contact your doctors if you need to receive treatment at a medical facility. Some professionals will need to treat patients in-person, which increases exposure risk since it occurs in a hospital or clinic. Speaking with your doctor or care provider is the best way to create a plan for treatment.