The coronavirus pandemic, or COVID-19, has turned everyday life on its head. There are obvious risks involved for all of us, but cancer patients are considered high risk because of their compromised immune systems. Dr. Alfred Vargas, OhioHealth’s Chief of Medical Oncology and Hematology, answers some of your most frequently asked questions about how cancer patients and survivors can protect themselves in the midst of a pandemic complicated by constantly changing circumstances:
As a cancer patient, what makes me more vulnerable to COVID-19?
If your immune system is compromised, you are at a higher risk for serious complications from COVID-19. Many cancer treatments can weaken your immune system by decreasing your white blood cell count or affecting antibody production, both of which are important defenses against viruses and bacteria. Generally, the effects are more prominent closer to the time of your treatment. In some situations, some degree of immune system suppression may be present for weeks to months after your treatment is complete. Blood-related cancers can also greatly impair immune system function and place you at a higher risk level.
In addition to being a cancer patient, you may have other risk factors such as age, or conditions like lung disease or diabetes that persist after treatment is complete. These factors and conditions will continue to contribute to your risk for complications from COVID 19. If you’re concerned about your risk factors and would like more information, you should reach out to your primary care physician or oncologist for more information.
What can I do to stay safe?
To minimize the risks of contracting COVID-19, avoid touching your face, wash your hands and use hand sanitizer when a hand washing station is unavailable. Wipe down frequently touched surfaces. Continue practicing social distancing from six feet away when possible, and follow government guidelines and recommendations.
Consider the circumstances you may encounter when you are out in public, anticipating what you may need before leaving home in order to be prepared. Wear a mask when around others. When possible, leverage virtual technology for medical appointments and to remain socially connected. Avoid contact with anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19, including cough, fever, sore throat, difficulty breathing, chills, muscle pain, headache or new loss of taste or smell. Avoid large gatherings and locations with high foot traffic if possible. Consider using delivery services whenever they are available.
If you’re a high risk individual as a result of a compromised immune system, you may find it difficult to explain to others the steps you’re taking for your own protection. Explain to a friend or relative that your condition makes you more likely to have serious health problems if you contract COVID-19, and that you would prefer to make contact virtually or from a safe distance. Ask for their help getting anything you may need delivered to your home. If you live with others, remind them about the risks of bringing the virus home with them, and encourage them to stay home as much as possible.
What should I do if I’m experiencing symptoms of COVID-19?
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of COVID-19, please contact your primary care provider, physician or oncologist immediately, especially if your immune system is compromised. Until you can be evaluated, isolate yourself from others within your home and monitor yourself for worsening symptoms like fever and difficulty breathing. Your care team will coordinate and work together to get you the medical attention you need as soon as possible. Our physicians and healthcare professionals stand ready to provide you with monitoring and medical support whenever you need it.
We want to reassure you that it is safe to enter our care sites. Our teams on-site at each location are taking the proper precautions for your safety. Providing necessary treatments is still OhioHealth Cancer Care’s top priority. We want you to know that we’re committed to providing you with the care you need, even during these uncertain times. Click here for more information about how OhioHealth is keeping you safe at our care sites.
Watch Dr. Vargas’s recent interview on what cancer patients should know about COVID-19.
Dr. Vargas is a board-certified and fellowship trained medical oncologist with nearly 10 years of experience treating a wide range of cancers and blood disorders. He is System Chief of Medical Oncology at OhioHealth, and is an MD Anderson Cancer Network® certified physician, practicing at Grant Medical Center.