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COVID-19: What Cancer Patients Should Know

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People with compromised immune systems have a higher risk of severe illness if they become infected with coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and this includes cancer patients.

If you or a loved one has cancer or is currently undergoing cancer treatment, it’s important to know how to protect yourself from COVID-19 and be able to identify the signs of infection.

Why Cancer Patients May Be Immunocompromised

White blood cells are an essential part of the body’s ability to fight infection, like an infection from COVID-19. These blood cells identify and destroy invading bacteria and viruses that can cause harm. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), some types of cancer and some cancer treatments — such as chemotherapy — may lower the number of white blood cells, which are needed to fight infection. This condition is called neutropenia.

These factors can also make an infection more likely:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Poor nutrition
  • Stress

If you’re immunocompromised, it’s important to be aware of these factors and also to monitor yourself regularly for signs of infection. Be sure to follow all the infection prevention steps that your cancer team has given you, as well.

Watch for Signs of Infection

Unfortunately, cancer patients are more likely to get infections. Be alert and call your cancer care team at AdventHealth right away if you have any of these signs of an infection, the NCI advises:

  • A temperature of 100.5 degrees F (38 degrees C) or higher
  • A cough or sore throat
  • Diarrhea
  • Ear pain, headache or sinus pain, or a stiff or sore neck
  • Skin rash
  • Sores or a white coating on your tongue or in your mouth
  • Swelling or redness, especially at a catheter insertion site or a chemotherapy port site
  • Urine that is bloody or cloudy, or pain when you urinate

However, know that the presence of symptoms doesn’t necessary mean that you have COVID-19. If you are undergoing chemotherapy and run a fever of 100.5 degrees F or higher, consider it an emergency and call your physician, even if it’s after hours. If you go to the emergency room, make sure to tell them that you have cancer and are undergoing treatment.

How to Protect Yourself From COVID-19

Because COVID-19 is a new disease, there is no vaccine to prevent it and no specific treatment yet. For now, the NCI advises that the best way for people with cancer to prevent getting sick from COVID-19 is to avoid exposure to the coronavirus.

The CDC recommends that you follow these everyday preventive measures to help prevent the spread of coronavirus and other respiratory infections, including:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Avoid large social gatherings
  • Avoid touching your eyes, mouth and nose
  • Avoid unnecessary contact with others, such as handshakes
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily
  • Stay 6 feet away from other people
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol

For people who are at high risk of serious complications from COVID-19, the CDC suggests these additional protective measures:

  • Avoid nonessential air travel and cruise travel
  • If you must go out, avoid crowds
  • Keep an adequate supply of prescription and over-the-counter medications, as needed
  • Stay home as much as possible
  • Use a mail order prescription delivery service, if available

If a prescription delivery service isn’t available, you can ask a friend or family member to pick up your prescription and leave it at your doorstep.

Doctor Appointments During the Coronavirus Pandemic

The situation with coronavirus is changing rapidly, and the health care system is adapting to address the pandemic. As a result, your physician may need to change when and how your cancer treatments and follow-up visits take place.

Some treatments cannot be delayed, while others can be rescheduled safely. It may be possible to delay routine follow-up visits or conduct them through telehealth video visits.

Please contact your physician’s office for guidance before going to your next treatment or follow-up appointment. Your doctor is in the best position to weigh the risk of delaying your appointment against the risk of exposure to infection. You can use the AdventHealth app to make a video visit (also called telemedicine) with your doctor and message your cancer care team — all from your smartphone or tablet.

If You’re Participating in a Clinical Trial for Cancer Treatment

If you are participating in a clinical trial for a cancer treatment, contact your clinical trial nurse for guidance. The NCI is working with the physicians and scientists conducting their trials to address the challenges of providing care during the coronavirus pandemic. They’ll want to ensure that as many people as possible stay safe from COVID-19.

What Cancer Survivors Should Know

The risk of being immunocompromised is usually highest during active cancer treatment, especially seven to 12 days after each dose of chemotherapy. Most cancer survivors, especially if they were treated several years ago, are likely to have rebuilt a healthy immune function. But each person has a different experience.

If you are a cancer survivor and are concerned about your risk of getting severely ill with COVID-19, call your physician or reach out via our AdventHealth app.

We’re Here for You and Your Family

If you or a loved one has cancer, you aren’t in this alone. We’re here, ready to provide trusted advice throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Visit our Coronavirus Resource Hub for more information and to find answers to your coronavirus FAQs.

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