What you need to know about cancer and the new coronavirus outbreak

From the American Cancer Society:

The CDC does not have specific recommendations on masks for people who have or have had cancer and their caregivers. But for many people being treated for cancer, especially with treatments like chemotherapy or stem cell (bone marrow) transplants that can weaken the immune system, doctors often recommend patients wear a mask to help lower exposure to germs that might cause infections. If you’re not sure if you or your caregiver should be wearing a mask, contact your doctor or another member of your cancer care team.

What about eye protection?

While the CDC recommends the use of eye protection (goggles or face shields) for health care workers (doctors, nurses, technicians, dentists, and others) in certain settings, it is not recommended at this time for the general public. A recent review of published studies suggested wearing eye protection might help reduce the spread of the coronavirus in the community, although more research on this is still needed.

What else do cancer patients need to know about the coronavirus?

The COVID-19 pandemic is still fairly new, and doctors are still learning about its possible risks for cancer patients. But they do have a lot of information regarding the risk of infections in general for cancer patients.

Avoiding being exposed to this virus is especially important for cancer patients, who might be at higher risk for serious illness if they get infected. This is particularly true for patients who are getting chemotherapy or a stem cell (bone marrow) transplant, because their immune systems can be severely weakened by the treatment.

The pandemic is also affecting the way many people get medical care. “We’re in a time where there are significant disruptions in the care of patients with cancer,” says Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the American Cancer Society. “Depending on the COVID-19 situation where you live, it may mean a delay in having cancer surgery or care that’s meant to keep cancer from returning. You may need to reschedule appointments.”

Lichtenfeld says cancer care teams are going to do to the best they can to deliver care to those most in need. However, even in those circumstances, it won’t be life as usual. “It will require patience on everyone’s part as we go through this pandemic,” Lichtenfeld adds. “It is important to maintain contact with your cancer care team to determine the best course of action for you. This may involve talking to your care team virtually [online or over the phone] and not physically going to the clinic.”

As parts of the country re-open, many clinics and infusion centers have made changes to allow you to come in safely for an in-person visit as well as treatment. These might include screening for COVID-19 symptoms ahead of your visit, proper spacing of waiting room and infusion chairs, and spacing out appointments to limit the number of people in the waiting room at one time. So, it’s important to know who to call to reach your cancer care team to find out how to proceed.

Lichtenfeld adds, “These circumstances will take months to resolve, and even then, we will continue to have changes in the way cancer patients receive their treatment.”

In the meantime, doctors need to learn more about cancer patients and COVID-19. Registries such as the COVID-19 and Cancer Consortium and studies such as the NCI COVID-19 in Cancer Patients Study are actively collecting data. Early studies from registries in the US and around the world have looked at outcomes for cancer patients who develop COVID-19 with symptoms, as well as if certain anti-cancer treatments change these outcomes. These initial study results are helpful, but it is very important to gather more data and analyze it over a longer time to better understand the effects of COVID-19 on current and former cancer patients. Contact your doctor if you are interested in participating in a registry or study.

Should people still get screened for cancer during this pandemic?

Health officials in most places are still urging people to stay home as much as possible to reduce the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, health centers in some parts of the country are starting to schedule screening tests and exams again, typically with measures in place to help maintain social distancing as much as possible. So, what should you do if you’re due (or overdue) for a cancer screening?

This is a complex topic because even though stay-at-home orders in many places are being relaxed or lifted, the pandemic is not over. The answer to the question of whether it’s safe to be screened again might not be the same for everyone, so it’s important to talk to your doctor, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, etc., to find out what’s best for you. Some important things to consider:

  • What is your risk for the type of cancer you’re being screened for? Is the risk of postponing cancer screening bigger than the risk you face from COVID-19?
  • What type of screening test would you have? (Some types of screening tests are more involved than others.)
  • How common is COVID-19 in your area, and what are local health officials recommending about getting health care services right now?
  • What is your risk for having complications if you are infected with COVID-19 (based on things like your age and if you have other serious health conditions)?
  • What measures is the center taking to help protect you and others from COVID-19 (such as pre-screening patients for COVID-related symptoms before appointments, allowing for physical distancing between patients and for longer appointment times if needed, cleaning equipment and surfaces after each patient visit, and having staff wear personal protective equipment)?

Talk to your health care provider about the risks and benefits for you of being screened, and whether or not it might make sense to postpone it at this time. Remember that cancer screening can save lives, so it’s important to not just forget about it. Getting back on track with cancer screening at some point should still be a priority.

Screening tests are different from tests your doctor might order if you have symptoms that could be from cancer. If you’re having symptoms you’re concerned about, contact your health care provider about the best course of action for you at this time.

Story source: the American Cancer Society.

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