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COVID-19 and Cancer Care: What You Should Know

Based on what we know so far about COVID-19 (coronavirus), people with cancer and other health concerns may be at higher risk for more serious complications from the virus than the general population. It’s important that patients and their caregivers take precautions to lower their risk of getting COVID-19.

Each person is different. Your physician can review your situation and medical history to give you a greater understanding of your personal risk.

Here are answers to some common questions related to cancer and COVID-19. Please note that these answers are subject to change as we receive more information about COVID-19. If you have additional questions not answered here, call your physician or the Northwestern Medicine COVID-19 hotline at 312.47.COVID (472.6843).

Find the latest COVID-19 updates for Northwestern Medicine patients and visitors here.

Am I more likely to get COVID-19 because I have cancer?

People who have cancer do not appear to be more likely to contract COVID-19. However, they are among those at serious risk from an infection because their immune systems are often weakened by cancer and its treatments. Experts believe that the more underlying health conditions a person has, the higher their chance of having complications from COVID-19.

People who have cancer are already fighting a serious illness, and they may have other significant medical conditions increasing their risk for serious complications from the virus. The risk is higher for patients who are actively receiving treatment for their cancer (chemotherapy or radiation therapy) and especially high for treatments that involve drugs that suppress the immune system, like stem cell transplant. 

How does radiation therapy affect my risk for COVID-19?

Talk to your radiation oncologist about your treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you have COVID-19, your scheduled daily radiation treatments would likely need to be paused until you recover from the virus.

If you are receiving chemotherapy in addition to radiation therapy, you are likely at higher risk for serious illness if you contract COVID-19.

How does chemotherapy affect a person’s immune system?

It varies depending on the person and the type of chemotherapy. When a typical patient receives chemotherapy, the immune system may become increasingly impaired over the next several days and then begin to recover, usually in time for the next cycle of chemotherapy.

How long after chemotherapy is a person’s immune system recovering or compromised?

This can vary widely for each individual. Some patients have very little if any immunosuppression, while others can have a compromised immune system for weeks or even longer. If you are receiving chemotherapy, talk to your physician about how long your immune system will be compromised.

What can I do to protect my health during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Keep at least a 2-week supply of your medications and contact your physician if you need refills. To refill your prescription, you can limit exposure to the virus by using a mail-order service or drive-thru pharmacy, or have a caregiver pick up your medication.

Physicians recommend that people with cancer adhere to the recommendations released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prioritizing social distancing and hand hygiene. For patients who have had a stem cell transplant, additional measures may be necessary, including wearing a mask when you need to go outside the house. Discuss these precautions with your physician. In general, minimizing contact and keeping 6 feet away from people you interact with is important. You should also eat well, reduce stress and get plenty of sleep.

What should I do if I have cancer and symptoms of COVID-19?

If you have COVID-19 symptoms such as a fever, cough, sore throat or shortness of breath, call your physician immediately.

If I have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19 but I do not have symptoms, what should I do?

If you have been exposed to someone who received a COVID-19 diagnosis, you should self-isolate for 14 days and monitor for symptoms of the virus. If you begin to experience symptoms, call your physician.

How can I manage stress and anxiety in this challenging time?

You are not in this alone. In this time of “social distancing,” it is easy to feel isolated. We should all use this opportunity to reconnect with friends we haven’t spoken to in a while, check in with neighbors and family, and take this time to focus on the people we care about, even if our communication is online, or by telephone or video. 

Ask your care team about the supportive oncology services available to you, including the cancer support communities that are offering telephone counseling and online support groups. The Cancer Support Community offers a Cancer Support Hotline and additional resources for patients in need.

Lurie Cancer Center’s Supportive Oncology team at Northwestern Memorial Hospital continues to be available for patients every weekday during this period. They are connecting with patients by video or telephone for scheduled appointments, and in person if a patient is scheduled to be in clinic for treatment.

What other resources can I use for information about cancer and COVID-19?

Leonidas C. Platanias, MD, PhD, director of Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, recently recorded a podcast to talk about Evolving Cancer Care and COVID-19. It can be downloaded or played directly to help you learn more.

The news about COVID-19 is evolving rapidly. For the latest information, including more detailed responses to some frequently asked questions, please visit the following websites: