COVID-19 and Cancer Care: Things You Should Know

The current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has seen a complete shift in the healthcare sector, where the primary focus and resources are being prioritized and used for the care of COVID-19 patients.

Social distancing, wearing gloves and face masks, staying at home, and generally staying away from public spaces (especially those that are overcrowded) are all precautions that must be followed to flatten the curve.

This makes it challenging to provide treatment to cancer patients.

Healthcare facilities are facing constant problems, including supply-chain disruptions, lack of human resources, overworked staff, and lack of available facilities.

What exactly is Coronavirus?

Coronavirus is a family of viruses that transmit between animals and humans. COVID-19 is a disease caused by the number 19 strain of this virus. 

The source of this virus is believed to have originated in a meat market in a city called Wuhan, China, in December 2019.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

People with COVID-19 are either asymptomatic completely or develop health problems ranging from the common cold to severe respiratory illnesses, 4-14 days post contracting the infection.

How does the virus spread?

COVID-19 is spread from person-to-person through droplets in the air or on surfaces. If someone with COVID-19 sneezes or coughs near you, droplets can get through the nose or mouth and lead to infection. Similarly, if a person touches a surface contaminated with droplets and then touches their face, it can also lead to infection.

It is advised to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, keep mouth and nose covered with a mask, and maintain a distance of 6 feet if out in public places.

How do you wear and take off a face mask properly?

Face masks can help protect you from airborne infections if worn correctly, and also discarded in the right way.

3-ply face masks are recommended as they are made up of 3 layers which can increase filtration against larger droplets.

However, it is crucial that face masks fit snugly and are not open from the sides, to block small particles from coughing or sneezing. 

How do you know if you have COVID-19 or the common cold?

It is not easy to differentiate between COVID-19 and the common cold if you are experiencing mild symptoms. However, if you have traveled recently or been exposed to someone with the virus, and your symptoms progress, it is important to seek medical assistance for suspicion of corona infection.

Are cancer patients at higher risk of contracting the virus?

COVID-19 is especially harmful to older people and those suffering from existing medical conditions like cancer.

Cancer patients are considered at higher risk of experiencing more severe symptoms due to their weakened immune systems from active or previous treatment.

Do all types of cancer increase your risk of getting COVID-19?

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, so those patients who have an underlying lung condition or lung cancer are at higher risk of experiencing severe symptoms. 

Similarly, those patients in active treatment involving specific drugs, like chemotherapy, may also be at a higher risk. 

Cancer patients who are undergoing active treatment should discuss the merits and demerits of delaying cancer treatment versus continuing with proposed therapy during COVID times with their oncologist.

Treatment of cancer during COVID-19 requires a highly individualized approach (depending upon the stage, grade, and severity of the disease). Generalizations with a one size fit all approach will not work.

Should I reschedule any follow-up appointments for cancer treatment, or is it okay to visit a clinic/hospital?

If your treatment for cancer is over & if you are not experiencing any symptoms, then you can contact your cancer support team to find out if your routine check-up is advisable at this time or if it can be delayed. You may even reach out to your doctors via telecommunication rather than physically going to a hospital for a routine check-up.

However, if you experience severe symptoms or have a suspicion of relapse based upon symptoms or blood reports, then, seek medical attention immediately.

Can cancer patients get tested for COVID-19?

Cancer patients showing signs of fever and respiratory symptoms like cough, shortness of breath, and other symptoms mentioned above are considered the highest priority for COVID-19 testing.

However, not all patients with the above symptoms shall test positive for COVID-19. Testing for alternative causes like bacterial pneumonia or influenza, pulmonary embolism (blockage in the lungs), and other side effects from disease or treatment should be carried out as well.

If a cancer patient has tested positive for COVID-19, when can cancer treatment safely resume?

If a cancer patient has tested positive for COVID-19, it is not advised to resume cancer treatment quickly. This is to avoid further compromising the patient’s immune system with cancer drugs and treatment.

Guidelines suggest that once the patient shows no symptoms, 2 negative COVID-19 results must be obtained, 24 hours apart, before restarting cancer treatment. The exact guidelines for restarting treatment are varying from country to country.

How can I strengthen my immune system?

A healthy immune system is the best bet against COVID-19 until the time we have an effective vaccine.

Will I be able to continue my cancer treatment during COVID-19?

Cancer treatment decisions will be made on a case-to-case basis. The risks between delayed treatment outcomes (in terms of cancer progression) and exposure to the virus need to be determined to prioritize patient’s care accordingly.

There is still limited knowledge about COVID-19 as it is a new virus but general principles for cancer management during COVID-19 shall be resting on the points discussed above. 

If you are a cancer patient, you must discuss your treatment plan with your healthcare provider. 

Stay Home and Stay Safe

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