If you or someone you care about has cancer, you may be particularly concerned about the coronavirus outbreak. Cancer treatments and blood-related cancers can weaken your immune system, which increases your risk of infections, including COVID-19, so you do need to take extra care. But your emotional wellbeing is important too. Here are some tips to help you have proactive discussions with your care team and look after both your physical and mental health.
How cancer treatments impact coronavirus risk
When chemotherapy and radiation therapy kill or damage cancer cells, they also temporarily decrease or damage white blood cells which are important for fighting infections. Immunotherapy medicines can cause your immune system to attack healthy cells, increasing your risk of getting viruses. Surgery to take out lymph nodes or transplant bone marrow can also lower your immune system.
Blood cancers such as leukaemia or lymphoma also increase your risk of infection because of their impact on white blood cells.
One type of treatment that doesn’t seem to impact the immune system is hormone therapy, so if it’s used on its own it is unlikely to make you more prone to infections.
If you’ve completed active treatment you may still have a lower immune system, so it may be worth taking some extra precautions.
Check in with your GP or specialist
It’s worth checking in with your healthcare team to see if any part of your treatment needs to change during this time. You can review the treatment you’re undergoing – and if the risks and benefits have changed, discuss whether there are other options you can consider. Many doctors are now doing consultations over the phone or through videoconferencing, so ask whether this is an option when you call to set up your appointment.
Questions to ask your doctor or treatment team:
- Can I do some consultations remotely via phone or videoconferencing?
- Is it possible to get some treatments at home or at a centre that’s closer to me?
- Have the risks and benefits of any of my treatments changed?
- Do we need to make any changes to my treatment schedule?
- When are the times in my treatment cycle when I have highest risk of infection?
- Should I get the flu vaccine and if so, when?
- What should I do if I notice symptoms of the coronavirus?
Ways to reduce your risk of COVID-19
Everyone needs to take precautions, but it’s especially important if you’re undergoing cancer treatment (or living with someone who is). Your treatment team will have already given you instructions to reduce the risk of infection, which will also help protect against the coronavirus. Be vigilant about washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds any time you eat or drink, use the toilet or spend time in public place — and regularly clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that are frequently touched. It’s best to stay home and avoid public places and crowds as much as you can — so see if you can order groceries online or get a friend or relative to help so you can limit trips to the shops. If you’re living with other people, they should also try to stay home if possible. This fact sheet includes more practical ways to reduce your risk.
If you or someone you live with has symptoms
If you or someone you live with experiences symptoms such as fever or other flu-like symptoms, contact your treatment team straight away and follow their advice. Always call ahead and explain your situation before showing up at a treatment centre.
It’s also best not to share the same living space with someone who has been exposed to the coronavirus. If it’s not possible to be in separate dwellings, the person should self-isolate in a separate room. For details on what’s required during self-isolation, visit this Department of Health page.