On Your Health

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What to Know About Cancer Treatment During COVID-19

04/08/2020

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is frightening no matter when it happens. Of course, patients always have many questions for their physician, including “What are my treatment options?” and “How advanced is my cancer?” — to name just a few. Unfortunately, as the novel coronavirus continues to spread rapidly across the U.S., decisions about cancer treatment that are tough in normal times may be even more difficult today.  

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can spread easily from person to person. Like other viruses, it can cause serious infections for people with weakened immune systems.

People with cancer may have a higher risk of infection because of changes in their immune system that control their body’s defense systems. Cancer and its treatment are what often weaken the immune system of cancer patients. 

The COVID-19 outbreak is still new, and doctors do not yet have enough specific information on the virus and how it affects cancer patients. However, doctors do know that in general cancer patients are at an increased risk of any infection. Another way of saying this is cancer patients are immunocompromised.

How should a cancer patient determine if a treatment should be delayed? 

Hospitals nationwide have canceled or postponed treatments and procedures so they can focus on COVID-19 patients. But should your cancer treatment continue during this time? It all depends on what your doctor says.

As previously discussed, cancer patients are among those at risk of serious illness from an infection due to a possible weakened immune system. Although many people treated for cancer in the past (especially if it was years ago) are likely to have normal immune function, each person is different. That’s why it is important that you, as a cancer survivor — newly diagnosed or not — talk with your doctor about the timing of all medical treatments, since your doctor understands your specific situation and medical history.  

Since no two cancers or patients are alike, decisions for treatment options may vary and may be impacted by circumstances relating to COVID-19. A cancer patient’s care team will look at each patient on a case-by-case scenario.  

For example, the result of postponing treatment for a relatively healthy 55-year-old male with early-stage prostate cancer might be very different from a 70-year-old female with COPD and stage IV lung cancer. 

Therefore, some cancer treatments may be able to be postponed while some cancers cannot wait for the COVID-19 circumstances to lessen. Some factors that will be considered include your age and overall health, your cancer type and stage, symptoms and side effects that you are experiencing, and the type of treatment and regimen you require.  

Dr. Nassar Janbay, a medical oncologist at INTEGRIS, shares some positive news. "To date, there is no evidence available that suggests for patients who have a history of cancer or history of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or endocrine therapy, that an increase of infection with COVID-19 increases complications of the disease."

He continues, "Patients who have cancer do have a higher risk of health complications from COVID-19 infection because their immune systems are compromised, so they should follow their oncologist’s recommendations." 

But, in the absence of any symptoms or signs of COVID-19 infection, he says, "Continuing cancer treatment will often be the best course of action."

He notes though, that cancer patients and their caregivers should be particularly vigilant about precautions, including hand washing, social distancing and wearing a mask.

Precautions cancer patients should strictly perform include:

  1. Washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  2. Using hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol or more when you cannot wash with soap and water.
  3. Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces frequently.
  4. Keeping your hands off your face.
  5. Avoiding groups of people.
  6. Staying six feet away from other people.

Most importantly, experts like Dr. Janbay continue to urge everyone to stay home as much as possible to reduce the risk of being exposed to COVID-19. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control has begun recommending that all people wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. These recommendations are even more important for those who are immunocompromised, like cancer patients. To learn more, visit the CDC website here.

Lastly, it’s key for both cancer patients and their caregivers to stay as healthy as possible. Get plenty of sleep, eat healthy, exercise, and try hard to manage your stress. Everyone should take time each day to do at least one thing that brings them joy.  

On a final note, cancer patients should call their doctor immediately if any of these things occur:

  • A fever higher than 100
  • Shortness of breath
  • A newly developed cough and/or congestion

If you have questions about cancer and COVID-19, call the INTEGRIS Cancer Institute at 877-811-4246 or visit integrisok.com/locations/cancer/integris-cancer-institute.

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What To Know About COVID-19

The best advice right now for staying safe from coronavirus is to simply stay home and practice social distancing.