What Cancer Patients Need To Know About The Coronavirus

by Jane Ashley

The first fact to remember is that the worldwide coronavirus outbreak is a very fluid situation. Almost every day brings more news — more cases, new cases in another country, and more than a little bit of panic among many people. So gird yourself with some courage and self-restraint. You don’t need a month's worth of groceries at home, and you don’t need to stock up on bottled water.

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Follow the advice of your oncologist. Every cancer center is carefully monitoring the coronavirus outbreak. Your oncologist will provide practical information tailored to your particular situation. For example, if you’re in active treatment and your white cell count is low, you’ll probably get more aggressive instructions for protecting yourself from the virus. If you’re post-treatment with normal blood counts, good common sense is perhaps the only advice that you’ll need.


While corona symptoms mimic flu and cold symptoms, the primary symptoms appear to be fever, cough, and shortness of breath. If you experience these symptoms, call your oncologist immediately and follow their instructions.

Practical Advice for Day-to-day Living

Here are some practical tips for both patients and their primary caregivers. Caregivers must practice good hygiene and avoid exposure since they could quickly spread the coronavirus or other infectious diseases to the patient.

• Wash your hands with soap-and-water for at least 20 seconds (the length of Happy Birthday) whenever you are out and about. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
• Don’t touch your mouth, nose, or eyes with your hands as this is a common way that the virus is transmitted.
• Clean commonly-touched objects in your house and car with household wipes or spray. Coronavirus may live up to 3 days on surfaces so they can be transferred from place to place. Everyday objects to clean include doorknobs, counters, toilets, keyboards, tablets, and phones.
• Avoid close contact with people who seem to be sick — if they are coughing or sneezing, stay at least 3 feet away.
• Avoid large crowds in tight spaces — you might want to skip church if there is an outbreak in your city, forego school events even if you have children or grandchildren participating, and omit attending concerts and plays.

Coronavirus Continues To Spread

Specific Advice for Patients in Active Treatment

Always follow the advice of your oncologist or chemo nurse. They will provide the most up-to-date guidance for avoiding the coronavirus.

These are practical guidelines for most patients to follow:
• Patients who are neutropenic (extremely low neutrophil counts) should be extra cautious. Staying at home is probably the best advice.
• Patients with low white cell counts, low lymphocyte counts, or patients taking steroids regularly should err on the side of caution. Wash your hands frequently when outside your home, and then rewash them when you get home.
• Patients with blood cancers are the most “at-risk” patients. Patients on strong chemotherapy and patients with previous bone marrow transplants should use extra care.
• Older cancer patients (those over 70, in particular) should be extra cautious and avoid situations where they are exposed to crowds.
• Avoid subways, buses, and cabs, if at all possible.

FACEMASKS are not recommended as a means of prevention.

What should I do if I think I have the coronavirus?

If you experience fever, coughing, and shortness of breath and have been in contact with someone suspected of having the coronavirus or if you have recently traveled to a country experiencing a corona outbreak, call your oncologist and follow their directions exactly. They may direct you to go directly to the hospital rather than coming to the cancer center.

What about travel plans?

Talk to your doctor about any travel plans.

Again, this is a very fluid situation. The CDC (Communicable Disease Control and Prevention Center) website provides current travel advice and updates as coronavirus outbreaks appear.

The most prudent advice is to avoid foreign travel unless there is a family emergency. It would also be wise to avoid domestic travel to cities with outbreaks.

What about cruise ships? The State Department of the United States is now advising citizens (particularly those with existing health problems) to avoid travel on cruise ships. The issues involved are not only to avoid contracting coronavirus but to avoid the risk of being quarantined in a foreign country for an undetermined period.

It is unknown whether the worldwide coronavirus outbreak will be under control by warmer weather. The best advice is to delay making reservations for cruises or foreign travel until mid-year or when the coronavirus outbreak subsides.

Do Not Panic


There is no reason for panic buying or stockpiling food, medicines, or hand sanitizers. Be sensible. This, too, shall pass. However, there is no need to press your luck with unnecessary travel and non-essential social events. There is no vaccine available for the coronavirus.

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