Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Cancer: What Patients and Caregivers Must Know

by Dr Amit Jotwani

The recent outbreak of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) and the rate at which the infection is spreading may be worrying. If you are a cancer patient or are a caregiver of a patient, your worries and fears may be multifold, understandably. But there is nothing to worry about, as coronavirus infections can be avoided if sufficient precautionary measures are taken.

Coronavirus and cancer - a guide to patients and caregivers -

Here we discuss how you can stay away from COVID-19. This article will benefit those with the following roles on a cancer journey –

  • patients currently undergoing treatment
  • those recently diagnosed with cancer
  • families and caregivers of a cancer patient
  • cancer survivors

Before we proceed, here is a quick summary of coronavirus. It is a flu-like virus that can affect our respiratory tract and lungs.  The symptoms include fever, cold and shortness of breath, and in some cases, diarrhoea and nausea.

Know in detail about COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019)

How can cancer and its treatment affect the body’s immunity?

The role of our immune system is to protect our body from diseases caused by germs like coronavirus. For people with cancer or those undergoing cancer treatments, the immune system may be weak, reducing your ability to fight infections. This is because certain treatments like chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and radiotherapy can affect the production of white blood cells which form a part of the immune system, helping fight infections.

Some cancers that directly affect the immune system like lymphoma or leukemia can also lower your ability to fight infections.

Weakened immunity and the risk of coronavirus infection

When our body’s immune system weakens, the ability to fight infections decreases. Though this can increase the risk of COVID-19, daily hygienic measures can help you prevent it. 

It is known to spread through respiratory droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze or touching unhygienic surfaces where the virus may lie after being released from an infected individual.

Hence, the role to ensure hygiene to prevent the risk of coronavirus infection is not just for cancer patients, but their families and caregivers as well. The preventive measures do not apply for the new coronavirus disease alone, but also for any other lung viruses that could take advantage of a weak immune system and cause various infections like flu as well. 


Advice on COVID-19 for patients currently on cancer treatment

If you are a cancer patient undergoing treatment like chemotherapy or radiation therapy, you should continue to attend unless otherwise advised by your doctor to reschedule your session. However, if you are concerned about the risks of infection, and symptoms, speak with your oncologist about your fears and understand if you need to delay treatment.

Though most of the recommended measures are similar to healthy individuals, cancer patients are advised to take more stringent measures. This is because you are at a higher risk of getting infected due to the reduced immunity from cancer and its treatment. Your doctor might advise you to interrupt treatment to avoid exposure. A detailed discussion about pros and cons of delay and effect on the continuity of care need to be discussed.

Here is a detailed guide on ensuring personal hygiene and staying away from catching any infection. 

Clean your hands often

  • Wash your hands with soap, for at least 20 seconds. Especially after a cough or a sneeze, visiting public places and touching public surfaces, using restrooms, before preparing food and eating, after contact with animals or pets, or touching frequently used things like books, etc.
  • If soap and water are not available, carry a hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol). If the hands are visibly dirty, soap and water are recommended
  • Avoid touching your face, nose or eyes often

Wearing masks

  • People who are sick should wear masks to make sure that they don’t transmit the virus. However, citing the decreased immunity in cancer patients, it is better that you wear masks whenever stepping out or interacting with individuals outside the family

Things to avoid

  • Stay home and do not travel except for necessary situations like lab and urgent treatment appointments
  • Minimise social interactions
  • Stay aware of your surroundings outside home, and avoid touching common area surfaces
  • If you are coming back home from outside, make sure your hands are sanitized and clothes changed. Your family members need to do the same.
  • Avoid meeting people who are unwell
  • If you come across people with a cough, maintain a distance of at least 6 feet and advise them to wear masks
  • Do not touch your face often. When you do, avoid touching with unclean hands


–  For people recently diagnosed with cancer

Some cancers that affect the bone marrow like leukemia and lymphoma may weaken your immune system. Discuss with your treating oncologist about the risks of a weakened immune system, and if there are any, make sure you follow the above preventive measures and keep yourself under medical guidance.


–  For caregivers of cancer patients 

Apart from ensuring personal hygiene as detailed above, people who are taking care of the cancer patients should ensure extra preventive measures, to ensure them (the cancer patient) and the environment around them are hygienic. 

Here are some preventive measures you should ensure to prevent the contact of COVID-19 for your ward’s, and your own safety –

  • Make sure the furniture, utensils, and other surfaces that the patient uses regularly are disinfected and cleaned regularly (at least twice a day)

A caregiver should ensure
  1. Frequently touched surfaces are routinely disinfected and cleaned (for example tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, toilets, faucets, sinks, cell phones)
  2. Disposable gloves are worn when cleaning and disinfecting surfaces
  3. The gloves are discarded after each cleaning. Clean your hands immediately after gloves are removed
  4. If surfaces are dirty, they should be cleaned using a detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection
  5. For disinfection, diluted household bleach solutions, alcohol-based solutions with at least 70% alcohol, and most common household disinfectants should be effective
  • Avoid crowded places like railway and bus stations, malls, airports, movie theatres, etc
  • If you come across people with a cough, maintain a distance of at least 6 feet and advise them to wear masks
  • Avoid using public transport and shared travel. Ensure your hands are sanitized after traveling locally
  • Be aware of your surroundings and avoid touching common surfaces in public places, like staircase railings, benches, door handles, etc. when you are out of home
  • After visiting public places, on your return home ensure to change your clothes and wash your hands thoroughly with soap (for at least 20 seconds)
  • When someone is visiting your home, or the caregiving place, ensure the visitors wash their hands and maintain a distance of at least 1-2 meters from the patient

If you have been exposed to the virus, and is a carer of a cancer patient, it is best advised to isolate yourself from the patient, and request for respite care.  


–  For cancer survivors 

If you have had cancer in the past, and now in remission, the risks are comparatively high for you to contract the coronavirus. The extent of the risk may depend on the type of cancer, health complications and the treatment you had received – the more your immune system is compromised, the higher is the risk.

Hence, you should ensure to follow the daily preventive measures (as stated above), along with those who are living with you. 

If you, or a loved one, is diagnosed with cancer and have any queries regarding coronavirus and its impact on cancer, please call us on +91-79965-79965. Our care managers will be happy to help you.

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