Coronavirus: What Cancer Patients Need to Know

If you or a loved one are living with cancer, there are things that you can do to protect yourself from coronavirus (also called COVID-19). Doctors Cardinale B. Smith and Andrew E. Esch share tips and answer frequently asked questions.* 

Tips to Keep Yourself Safe, provided by Dr. Smith*

  • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer (with 60% or more alcohol). Here’s how: start by washing with warm or cold water, then lather the soap for 20 seconds and rub it around the backs of your hands, between fingers and under your finger nails before rinsing.
  • Avoid contact with anyone who may be sick. Stay home as much as possible in order to limit exposure to anyone who may be sick, no matter what the illness is.
  • Avoid crowds (also called “social distancing”). Instead, have online or phone visits. If exercise is part of your treatment plan, look for a video on YouTube at home, instead of going to the gym. 
  • Avoid subways, buses and other forms of mass transportation. 
  • Call your doctor if you experience any new symptoms – whether related to your cancer or otherwise of concern.
  • Confirm with your medical team about keeping or rescheduling upcoming appointments.

Frequently Asked Questions, answered by Dr. Esch*

Please talk about the importance of observing safety protocols. Is COVID-19 more serious for those with cancer?

Doctors are still learning about COVID-19 every day. So far, we have observed that it seems to carry a higher risk in older patients with other serious medical issues, cancer being one of them. It is important for everyone, not just people living with cancer, to be steadfast in observing good hand hygiene, social distancing, avoiding crowds, and avoiding contacts with anyone who is sick.

A friend of mine with cancer is in the hospital. Should I visit her right now?  

No, please do not visit your friend, or anyone living with a serious illness – at a hospital, nursing home, or in their home. Now is the time to stay in your home and use technology to stay in contact with loved ones.

Should people living with cancer or shortness of breath from another serious illness be tested for COVID-19? 

Patients with underlying serious illness do not need to be tested unless they exhibit a cough that is beyond what may be normal for them, increased shortness of breath, extreme achiness, and fatigue or fever.  

How do I know whether my cancer team is affected by this virus? 

All health care workers protect themselves and their patients by using precautions for spreading the illness. Healthcare workers are tested if they exhibit any of the signs and symptoms of COVID-19.

What precautions should I take when I go to my cancer doctor? 

It is best to call your physician’s office in advance of your visit and ask them what they recommend for your protection, and what safety precautions they are taking.

What can I do to protect myself? 

Practice the tips above provided by Dr. Smith. In summary, stay home and wash your hands – following the guidelines described above. 

What are lawmakers doing to protect people living with serious illness?

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (fightcancer.org) sent a letter urging the US Senate to pass an important bill to help all Americans, including those with serious illness. Read more about the letter here. The bill was passed and goes into effect on April 2. Read here for a summary of what the bill addresses.

Dr. Cardinale Smith, MD, PhD is an oncologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

Dr. Andrew E. Esch, MD, MBA is a medical education consultant at the Center to Advance Palliative Care.

*This is not meant to serve as medical advice. Please reach out to your medical team for advice and any questions related to you or your loved one.

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