There’s never a good time for a cancer diagnosis.
Getting a cancer diagnosis, or dealing with ongoing treatment for cancer, during a global pandemic makes a hard thing feel almost impossible. “Can I even get treatment right now” is a question I’m hearing from a number of cancer community members around the world. This is a particularly thorny question in the US, where infection rates continue to climb in hot spots across the country, but there are few countries who aren’t dealing with some level of COVID infection, and its impact on their healthcare system.
Dealing with a diagnosis now means working with your treatment team to figure out surgical options and adjuvant (chemotherapy and radiation) treatment protocols, while also figuring out infection risk. Cancer treatment affects the immune system, making patients more susceptible to COVID.
Here are some recommendations from cancer treatment experts at the NIH/National Cancer Institute:
- Cancer treatment affects the immune system, putting you at higher risk of COVID infection.
- If you’re undergoing cancer treatment and have chronic conditions such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes, HIV, obesity, kidney disease, your risk is further increased.
- Cancer survivors can also be at increased risk for COVID, particularly if they received bone marrow transplantation as part of their treatment.
- If you’re currently undergoing treatment, discuss your treatment plan with your oncology team – can you make fewer trips to the clinic? Is oral chemo an option if your current treatment is infusion-based? Are virtual visits possible for routine evaluations?
- If you have not yet started treatment, work with your clinical team to figure out if surgery can safely be delayed; if not, follow the surgical safety guidelines for the hospital where your surgery is scheduled.
- Manage your increased risk of infection by rigorously following handwashing protocols, avoiding touching your eyes and face, wearing a mask when you leave the house, maintaining physical distance (6 feet) from people who don’t live with you, disinfecting frequently touched surfaces regularly.
- If you’re in a clinical trial, find out if the trial you’re participating in, or considering participating in, can go virtual – can the trial site accommodate virtual visits, and remote labs?
Living through a pandemic is challenging for everyone. Living through it while dealing with cancer treatment doubles, or even triples, that challenge. The key is to bring up your concerns with your treatment team, working with them through every step of infection prevention protocol to ensure you not only survive your cancer diagnosis, but also the global COVID epidemic.
Survival is a team effort, always.
Casey Quinlan covered her share of medical stories as a TV news field producer, and used healthcare as part of her observational comedy set as a standup comic. So when she got a breast cancer diagnosis five days before Christmas in 2007, she used her research, communication, and comedy skills to navigate treatment, and wrote “Cancer for Christmas: Making the Most of a Daunting Gift” about managing medical care, and the importance of health literate self-advocacy. In addition to her ongoing work as a journalist, she’s a popular speaker and thought leader on healthcare system transformation from the ground up.