Health Check

Cancer and COVID-19: what you need to know

Tips to help you have proactive discussions with your care team and look after both your physical and mental health during this time.

Written by Editor Medibank
A female cancer patient rests at her home.

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.

Looking after your emotional and mental wellbeing

Living with cancer can already feel isolating, and with the extra challenges of COVID-19, you may be feeling more worried, anxious, scared, stressed, or down than usual. It’s normal to feel a range of emotions, but remember that support is available if you need it. Here are a few things that can help:

Stay connected With the increased distance and isolation, you may need to make some extra effort to stay connected to friends and family. Video chats, phone calls, group message chats and good old-fashioned emails or letters can help you feel more in touch and supported. You can also turn real-life get togethers into virtual ones so you still have opportunities to have a laugh, catch up, commiserate and stay connected. Or create “watch parties” for movies or TV shows and message-chat as you view. Brainstorm ideas with friends to look for fun ways to stay connected and support each other.

Cancer Council has an online community that can help you connect with other people who have various cancer experiences. There’s also a section for carers. You can also ring the Cancer Council information and support line on 13 11 20.

Find ways to be physically active Exercise can reduce stress, lift your mood and help boost your immune system. Many gyms, yoga studios and some workplaces are offering online fitness classes, and you’ll find plenty of ideas on YouTube if you search for workouts you can do at home. Just check in with your treatment team first, and be sure to start slow and gradually build up. Be particularly careful if you’ve been diagnosed with the coronavirus – keep moving around your home but avoid strenuous exercise.

Get some fresh air Fresh air and nature can have a big impact on your overall wellbeing. If you aren’t able to get outside in a back yard or garden, open your curtains or blinds and sit by the window. Let some fresh air in if it’s not too cold, bring some pot plants or flowers inside and try to catch a sunrise or sunset if you can.

Reach out for more support if you need it

It can also be helpful to get support from a mental health professional if you’re struggling to cope. This is a challenging time, and they’re here to help. For more information about how to stay mentally well, check out this resource from Beyond Blue.

24/7 Medibank Mental Health Phone Support If you’re a Medibank member with hospital cover* you can call 1800 644 325 to speak to a mental health professional for confidential support, advice or information. We are increasing the number of health experts to keep up with higher demand, but please be patient if wait times are a little longer than expected.

*OSHC members should call the Student Health & Support Line on 1800 887 283.

Medibank’s chemotherapy in the home trial

Medibank at Home is trialling a chemotherapy program in Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales metro and Queensland metro to give eligible Medibank members greater choice over where they receive their cancer treatment.

For more information and to find out if you’re eligible to participate in the trial, call the Medibank at Home team on 1300 733 338 between 9am and 4pm AEST, Monday - Friday or email medibank.home@medibank.com.au.

For more information

This FAQ from the Cancer Council is a great place to get more information on COVID-19.

Written by Editor Medibank

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