What Should I Do During an Emergency or Natural Disaster?

September 24, 2015
· Amber Bauer, ASCO staff

Earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, fires, flooding, riots. The news has been filled recently with stories of catastrophic events. And while you can’t always know in advance when an emergency situation is going to occur, you can be prepared. This includes thinking through your specific medical needs if you are being treated for cancer or are a cancer survivor.

Depending on the type of emergency, you may be asked to evacuate or “shelter in place.” It is important to be ready if you need to leave or stay in your home for a long time.

Preparing for an evacuation

The first thing to do is make an emergency plan with your oncologist.  Talk to him or her about what you need to do to manage your cancer care during an evacuation. For example, what are your options if you cannot get to a scheduled radiation treatment or to the clinic for chemotherapy?

You should also make a plan with your family. Choose a place where everyone should meet if you need to evacuate. Also, identify a friend or a relative for everyone to communicate with in case you are separated or cannot get to the meeting place. This person can also be a back-up for any important information you may need, such as phone numbers for your doctor or pharmacy. If you know in advance that you or your loved one will need assistance during an evacuation, make a list of transport services in your area that are available to help.

Think about gathering and keeping supplies in a waterproof “go bag” that you can grab if you need to quickly leave. A “go bag” can be a backpack, tote bag, or even a small plastic container. In addition to basic supplies, such as water and blankets, your “go bag” should include any cancer medications and supportive care items.

You should also pack important documents related to your cancer treatment and care to help you continue treatment wherever you are.  You could save these documents to a USB drive and keep them in your “go bag,” or you may want to save them to the cloud or other server where they can be accessed from anywhere. (Always make sure your files are password protected to keep your personal information secure.)

These documents may include:

  • Pathology reports
  • Lab reports
  • Imaging results
  • Names, addresses, phone numbers, and fax numbers of all the doctors who are treating you or your loved one
  • Insurance information

Sheltering in place

During other types of emergencies, you may be asked to “shelter in place.” In this scenario, you will need enough water, food, medication, and other supplies, such as a first-aid kit, to survive on your own until help is available.

Remember, after a natural disaster, electricity, gas, water, and telephone services may be interrupted. Roads may be closed and emergency services that are especially important for people with cancer, such as ambulances and hospitals, may be unavailable. When making a plan, it is important to consider how these outages could affect you and your health.

Water. Have enough water for at least three days. Everyone needs to drink at least 2 quarts (a half gallon) of water each day. Plan on an additional half a gallon of water per person for preparing food and for personal hygiene. If you or a loved one is taking medication that makes them extra thirsty, plan on having more water.

Food. Have enough food for at least three days. Stock up on foods that you eat regularly and that don't need a refrigerator, such as energy bars, peanut butter, crackers, and canned fruit. (Don't forget a can opener.) Talk with your doctor about any vitamin, mineral, or protein supplement you may need to maintain your nutrition.

Medication. Make sure you have enough medication for at least one week, including any cancer medication and drugs for pain, nausea, and other side effects of cancer treatment. If it is not possible to have a week-long supply of medication and supplies, keep as much as possible on hand and talk with your pharmacist or doctor about what else you should do to prepare. For example, if the electricity goes out for a long time, it will be difficult to keep medications refrigerated.

Other supplies. Make a first-aid kit to treat basic injuries, such as cuts or burns. Many people with cancer are at high risk for infections. To protect yourself or your loved one, include sanitizing supplies in your first-aid kit, such as antiseptic spray, peroxide, or alcohol. If you or your loved one has a central venous catheter or an intravenous line to receive treatment, include extra dressings and supplies in your kit.