Coronavirus and COVID-19: What People With Cancer Need to Know

November 23, 2020
Merry Jennifer Markham, MD, FACP, FASCO

This post is reviewed and updated every day. It was first published on March 3.

Merry Jennifer Markham, MD, FACP, FASCO, is the Acting Chief of the University of Florida (UF) Division of Hematology & Oncology, a Clinical Professor in the UF College of Medicine, and the Associate Director for Medical Affairs at the UF Health Cancer Center. She specializes in the treatment of gynecologic cancers. Dr. Markham is the Cancer.Net Associate Editor for Gynecologic Cancers and the past chair of ASCO's Cancer Communications Committee. Follow her on Twitter at @DrMarkham.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) is aware that people with cancer and cancer survivors, particularly those with compromised immune systems, are likely worried about the potential impact of COVID-19 on their health. Patients should talk with their oncologists and health care teams to discuss their options to protect themselves from infection.

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19, or coronavirus disease 2019, is an illness caused by a novel (or new) coronavirus that was first identified in an outbreak in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. 

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause mild illnesses, such as the common cold, to more severe diseases, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Because the novel coronavirus is related to the SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV), the virus has been named SARS-CoV-2. The exact source of SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is not certain but likely originated in bats.

The virus can spread from person to person, through small droplets from the nose or mouth that are produced when a person coughs or sneezes. Another person may catch COVID-19 by breathing in these droplets or by touching a surface that the droplets have landed on and then touching their eyes, nose, or mouth. Most commonly, the virus spreads through close contact (within 6 feet), but sometimes the virus can be spread by airborne transmission. In an enclosed space, virus particles can remain in the air for minutes to hours and can infect people at distances of more than 6 feet.

Symptoms from COVID-19 can be mild to severe and may appear between 2 and 14 days after exposure to the virus. The symptoms may include fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, headaches, sore throat, and new loss of taste or smell. Other symptoms may include aches and pains, fatigue, nasal congestion or runny nose, or diarrhea. In some people, the illness may cause severe pneumonia and heart problems, and it may lead to death. Other people who are infected may not develop any symptoms.

COVID-19 can occur in both children and adults. Symptoms in children seem to be milder than symptoms in adults. Children with COVID-19 may be at risk for a multisystem inflammatory syndrome, with symptoms such as rash, fever, abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. Initial reports indicated that children and young adults were not as affected by COVID-19. However, people of all ages, including infants, can die from this disease. In addition, deaths seem to occur disproportionately in diverse populations, including Black and Hispanic populations.

An analysis of 928 people with cancer and COVID-19 presented during the ASCO20 Virtual Scientific Program revealed that having active, progressing cancer was associated with a 5 times higher risk of dying within 30 days compared with patients who were in remission from cancer.

What can I do to avoid getting COVID-19?

There is not currently an approved vaccine to prevent COVID-19, although clinical studies are being performed to develop an effective and safe vaccine. Several vaccines are getting close to being ready for approval, however. 

On July 27, the first phase 3 clinical trial of a vaccine for preventing COVID-19 infection began recruiting adult volunteers to participate. Adults who are interested in joining this study can visit www.coronaviruspreventionnetwork.org or visit ClinicalTrials.gov and search identifier NCT04470427 to find a study center to volunteer. There are now several other phase 3 clinical trials that are recruiting participants in the United States.

The most important way to protect yourself is to avoid being exposed to COVID-19. Stay at home as much as possible and avoid areas where people gather. Avoid unnecessary travel, and follow guidance on travel restrictions issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO).

Another critical way to protect yourself is to wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, about the amount of time it would take to hum the Happy Birthday song from beginning to end twice. If soap and water is not available, use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. 

In addition to washing your hands frequently, it’s important to:

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

  • If you must cough or sneeze, use a tissue. Then throw the tissue away. Or, cough or sneeze into your elbow rather than your hand.

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

  • Clean frequently touched objects and surfaces with household cleaning spray or wipes. These surfaces and objects include doorknobs, counters, toilets, keyboards, tablets, phones, light switches, and more.

When in public, it is important to wear a mask or cloth face covering that covers the nose and mouth. This can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the community, especially because some people with COVID-19 have no symptoms and don’t know they have the virus, or they may not have yet developed symptoms. You should not wear masks with exhalation valves or vents because the vents allow your own respiratory droplets to leave the mask and can put others at risk. 

Remember that wearing a cloth face mask or face covering should not replace social or physical distancing. In fact, if you are out in public, you should do both: practice physical distancing of at least 6 feet from other people and wear a mask.

There is no scientific evidence that taking zinc or vitamin C, even at high doses, can help to prevent COVID-19. Using mouthwash and nasal rinses, or ingesting mouthwash in large amounts, also will not prevent COVID-19 and can be dangerous.

Are there special precautions that people with cancer should take?

People with cancer, people who are in active cancer treatment, older patients, and people with other serious chronic medical conditions, such as lung disease, diabetes, or heart disease, are at higher risk for the more severe form of COVID-19 that could lead to death. Recent data have shown that people with active or progressing cancer may be at higher risk than those whose cancer is in remission. The same rules apply for people with cancer as for those without cancer: Be sure to wash your hands well, and wash them frequently. Avoid touching your face, and avoid close contact with people who are sick.

People who are at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 should avoid any non-essential travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stay at home to reduce your exposure to other people and thus reduce your exposure to the virus. Avoid social gatherings, including smaller gatherings with family or friends who don't live with you. If you must leave your home, keep a distance of at least 6 feet between yourself and other people. It is safest to only leave home for essential reasons, such as buying groceries, going to the doctor, or picking up medication from the pharmacy. Wear a cloth face covering or mask, and make your trip out as brief as possible. Another alternative is to have your food and medications delivered, so you do not have to leave the home.

Walking or exercising outdoors is fine as long as the area is not crowded and you are able to keep a distance of at least 6 feet from other people. Carry a mask with you, just in case you encounter other people.

Be sure to keep enough essential medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, to last for at least 1 month. Create or update an emergency contact list that includes family, friends, neighbors, and community or neighborhood resources who may be able to provide information or assistance to you if you need it.

In order to stay connected to your support system, connect with your family and friends virtually, through video chats or phone calls. Some examples of technology that can be used for video or other live chats are FaceTime, Zoom, Google Hangouts, and social media platforms, such as Instagram and Facebook.

If you are scheduled for cancer treatments, have a discussion with your oncologist about the benefits and risks of continuing or delaying treatment. If you are not scheduled for cancer treatment but are scheduled for an appointment with your oncologist, it may be possible for the doctor to conduct the visit using videoconferencing or telemedicine. Be sure to check with your cancer care team to see if this is recommended for you.

Finally, it is always important to have your health care wishes in writing, in case you are too sick to make decisions for yourself. This way, your family and your medical team will know what is important to you and what your wishes are. If you have not yet done this, now is a good time. Cancer.Net has valuable information on this topic. Because some hospitals and clinics are limiting visitors, and some are allowing no visitors, having your health care wishes in writing is more important than ever. Here are some examples of important questions to ask yourself, to discuss with your loved ones, and to write down:

  • What level of quality of life would be unacceptable to me?

  • What are my most important goals if my health situation worsens?

  • If I am unable to speak for myself, who is the person in my life who I would want to speak for me?

  • Who should not be involved in making decisions for me?

  • If my heart stops, do I want to have CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) done?

Will anything change with my cancer-related medical visits?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased risk of exposure to the virus by going out in public, most hospitals and clinics have changed their visitation policies. Some may allow 1 visitor per patient, and others may allow no visitors. Before heading to your medical appointment, check with the clinic or hospital for their current visitor policy.

Your cancer care team may switch some of your appointments to telemedicine. During a telemedicine appointment, you are able to stay at home and visit with your doctor or other health care team member through video conferencing using your phone or computer. Your doctor’s office will let you know what system they are using for telemedicine appointments, and they will give you instructions on how to have your visit this way. If you are interested in having a visit by telemedicine rather than in person, ask your doctor's office staff if this is possible. 

Your doctor may recommend delaying some treatments for supportive care, such as bone-strengthening treatments, for example, denosumab (Xgeva) or zoledronic acid (Zometa), or intravenous iron supplementation. They will only recommend delaying treatments if they feel it is in your best interest to do so. 

Oncologists may recommend stretching out the length of time between cancer treatments using medications, such as chemotherapy or immunotherapy. Or they may recommend delaying starting these treatments, based on your cancer diagnosis and the treatment goals. It’s important to remember that your oncologist will only do this after weighing the risks and benefits for your situation.

Cancer screening tests, such as mammograms or colonoscopies, and other tests, such as bone density tests, may also be delayed at times, depending on the rates of spread of the virus in your community, to reduce your risk of exposure to the virus. It is still important to receive regular cancer screening, even during a pandemic. The Prevent Cancer Foundation’s Back on the Books website can help you learn more about COVID-19 and safe cancer screening. For people who are at high risk of cancer, such as those with a hereditary cancer syndrome like Lynch Syndrome or a BRCA mutation, your doctor may recommend delaying some screening tests or cancer risk-reducing procedures. They will only recommend this if they feel it's safest for you, based on the virus transmission rates where you live and your own personal risk. It's always best to discuss timing of these tests and procedures with your doctor.

What should I do if I think I may have COVID-19?

Call ahead before visiting your health care professional or the emergency department if you have a fever and other symptoms of a respiratory illness, such as cough and shortness of breath. Let them know if you think you may have COVID-19. They will ask you questions about your symptoms, travel history, exposure, and medical risk factors to find out if you should be tested for COVID-19. They will then give you instructions on how to get tested in your community.

A common question I hear from patients is about which doctor to call. I recommend calling the doctor who you have the most contact with. If you have been off cancer treatment for more than a year and are seeing your primary care provider regularly, you may call your primary care provider. However, if you are seeing your oncologist more regularly or are on active cancer treatment, call your oncologist.

If you are receiving cancer treatment that suppresses the immune system and you develop a fever and respiratory symptoms, call your oncologist as you usually would if you develop a fever while on treatment. Be sure to follow their guidance on when to come into the office or hospital and when it’s safer to stay home.

Severe symptoms could be a medical emergency, and you may need to call 911. If you or your loved one has symptoms, such as trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in your chest, new confusion, or bluish lips, you should seek medical attention immediately.

Testing for COVID-19 involves inserting a 6-inch-long swab, similar to a Q-tip, deep into the nasal cavity for at least 15 seconds. The swab is inserted into a special container and sent to a laboratory for testing. Saliva tests are also available in some areas. There are several U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved at-home self-collection kits for this virus, approved under an emergency-use authorization. These tests often include a medical screening questionnaire and up-front payment. You should discuss with your doctor whether these are the right tests for you. If you decide to take an at-home test, be sure to let your cancer care team know the results.

If it is possible that you have COVID-19, you should stay at home and isolate yourself while you are tested and waiting for your test results. Staying home when you are sick is the best way to prevent transmitting the novel coronavirus and other respiratory viruses, such as the flu, to other people. If you live with someone, you should quarantine yourself in one part of the home, if possible, to lower the risk of spreading the virus to the rest of the people who live with you.

And again, be sure to wash your hands often.

If you are concerned that you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19, closely watch for developing symptoms. Check your temperature regularly for fevers. If you have active cancer or are currently in cancer treatment, let your medical team know about your possible exposure. On June 3, 2020, a study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine that included 821 people with no symptoms of COVID-19 who had a household or work exposure to COVID-19. This study showed that treatment with hydroxychloroquine after an exposure to someone with COVID-19 did not provide any benefit.

Is there a way to find out if I have already had COVID-19

Antibody tests, also known as serologic tests, have been developed, and these tests may be able to find out if you have already had a COVID-19 infection by identifying whether there are antibodies in the blood. Antibodies are specific proteins made by the body in response to an infection.

Antibody tests are not perfect. Some people who get COVID-19 may not make antibodies. Or they may make very low levels of antibodies. Some people may have a “false positive” antibody test, meaning the test finds antibodies, but the antibodies are related to a different coronavirus and not COVID-19.

Antibody tests should not be used to make a current diagnosis of COVID-19. It can take between 1 and 3 weeks after the infection for the body to make antibodies.

If you have had a COVID-19 infection, whether diagnosed through a test for the virus or through an antibody test, it is possible (but not certain) that you may have immunity for about 3 months. However, if suspicious symptoms develop within that 3-month period after the COVID-19 infection, another test for COVID-19 is recommended, unless there is another obvious cause for those symptoms.

If I have had COVID-19, will I be able to continue cancer treatment?

If you have tested positive for COVID-19, you should have a discussion with your oncologist about the impact of this on your cancer treatment. Some cancer treatment centers may require a negative COVID-19 test before chemotherapy or other cancer treatment starts again. However, some patients with COVID-19 continue to test positive even after recovering from their symptoms. In this situation, your health care team will consider the risks and benefits of restarting cancer treatment despite the positive test. Some treatments, especially those that do not impair the immune system, may be able to continue, especially if you have tested positive for the virus but do not have symptoms or have only mild symptoms.

When your cancer treatment resumes or continues, it is important to wear a mask when coming to the infusion clinic or cancer treatment center and to practice good hand hygiene by using hand sanitizer or handwashing before and after visits.

Are there any treatments available for COVID-19?

There are no cures for COVID-19. Scientists are working hard to develop and test treatments for COVID-19. Clinical trials are research studies that involve people. Working very quickly, researchers and physicians have developed clinical trials to find effective treatments for this disease. Clinical trials for potential COVID-19 treatments are now open in many locations in the United States and in other countries. If you have been diagnosed with the coronavirus disease and you join a clinical trial for patients with COVID-19, you may be able to receive these medications. Also, by joining a clinical trial, your participation will help scientists find the most effective and safe treatment for the illness. The Beat19 study, the NCI COVID-19 in Cancer Patients Study (NCCAPS), and a study at Stanford, for example, are designed to collect symptoms from people who may have COVID-19 to help researchers learn the course of the disease and help find a treatment.  

Remdesivir, an antiviral medication, may be helpful in treating COVID-19 infections. The drug received an Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA on May 1 and became the first FDA-approved treatment for COVID-19 on October 23, 2020. Remdesivir is approved for patients with COVID-19 who require hospitalization. It may decrease time spent hospitalized but does not prevent death.

Bamlanivimab is an antibody treatment given by vein (intravenously) that was given an FDA Emergency Use Authorization on November 9, 2020, for the treatment of people ages 12 and older who test positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus and are at risk of having severe COVID-19 or hospitalization. This drug is still being studied in clinical trials, but early information seems to suggest that it may reduce hospitalizations or emergency room visits in some patients. Two more intravenous antibodies, casirivimab and imdevimab, were given FDA Emergency Use Authorization on November 21, 2020, for the treatment of mild or moderate COVID-19 in patients who are at high risk for developing more severe disease. These 2 antibodies are given together. None of these newest antibodies are for people who are receiving oxygen or who are hospitalized.

Dexamethasone, a steroid medication, can be beneficial for critically ill patients with COVID-19. A report from the U.K. Recovery Trial found that dexamethasone can help save lives in people who require oxygen therapy or are on a ventilator. In this population of very ill patients, receiving dexamethasone resulted in a lower rate of death at 28 days. The drug unfortunately does not seem to help in cases of mild disease.

Convalescent plasma is the liquid portion of blood that can be collected from people who have recovered from COVID-19. This plasma may have antibodies to SARS-CoV-2. Convalescent plasma is being studied in clinical trials as a possible treatment, and the FDA issued an Emergency Use Authorization for it on August 23. However, its benefits and risks still have not been confirmed in randomized clinical trials. If you have fully recovered from a COVID-19 infection, you may be able to donate your plasma at a blood bank in your area in order to potentially help others. Learn more about donating convalescent plasma at the websites of the Red Cross and AABB (formerly known as the American Association of Blood Banks).

Hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) initially seemed promising as a possible treatment for COVID-19, but after various clinical trials reported data on its safety and effectiveness, this medication was not found to be helpful. Hydroxychloroquine is not recommended for the treatment of COVID-19, either alone or in combination with any other drugs.

A version of chloroquine (chloroquine phosphate) is used as an additive to clean fish aquariums. Consuming this fish tank additive has led to at least 1 death and other overdoses. Do not consume this product—it can kill you.

Drinking bleach or injecting bleach or other household disinfectants is very dangerous and can kill you. Another proposed treatment to avoid is oleandrin, an extract that comes from a toxic shrub. Ingesting even a small amount of the plant can kill you. These are not treatments for COVID-19, and they will not help prevent it.

How do we return to school or work safely?

Across the country, local and state officials have worked with school systems to plan school openings. Some schools are offering only in-person education, other schools are completely virtual for some or part of the year, and others still are offering some blend of the two.

If you or your children are returning to school in person, wearing a face covering or mask that covers the nose and mouth at all times is important to lower the risk of spread. If social distancing is possible, please do so. Avoid large groups of people. Use hand sanitizer frequently and wash hands whenever possible. Stay home or keep children at home if they are sick or have a fever.

When returning to in-person work, the same rules apply. Avoid large gatherings of people, social distance as much as possible, and wear a mask at all times except briefly when eating. Clean desks and other frequently touched surfaces often with disinfectant wipes or other cleaning solution. Do not go to work when you are sick or if you have a fever.

Finally, be sure to get a flu shot. This can help protect you and those around you.

When will things return to normal?

The answer to this question is not yet known. The rates of infection from the virus have fluctuated since early 2020, but the virus has not gone away and it likely won’t anytime soon. Overall, in the United States, the number of cases of COVID-19 and the number of deaths from the virus have continued to increase. When a vaccine is approved, this will help things return to normal, but the virus and risk of infection will still exist. Masking will continue to be important for the foreseeable future.

If your local community, county, or state has allowed nonessential businesses to reopen or remain open, the best way to stay safe is to continue to stay at home and avoid being in public as much as possible. Wear cloth face masks or face coverings when you must leave your home. Continue to wash your hands thoroughly and frequently and stay at least 6 feet away from other people if you need to go to the grocery store or pharmacy or other areas where other people may be.

If you decide to eat at a restaurant that has reopened, it’s safest to eat outside, and you should still wear a mask unless you are eating or drinking. The restaurant should have social distancing measures in place, and if they don't, choose another restaurant with outdoor seating. Avoid buffets. Try not to handle a menu unless you’ve seen it cleaned first, or read the restaurant's menu online on your phone. Always wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after touching anything.

Many people believe that a negative COVID-19 test means that it’s safe to gather with friends or family members outside of your household. However, this is not true. It is important to remember that a negative COVID-19 test only means that the person was negative at the moment of that test. The test only gives information about the level of virus at the exact time of the test. Someone could have COVID-19 but not yet have enough virus to test positive. Also, these tests are not 100% accurate.

The safest approach, especially if you are considered high risk, is to continue living as if the stay-at-home restrictions are still in place.

If you have questions about your personal risk due to your cancer or cancer treatment, be sure to speak with your doctor for their guidance.

Where can I get the latest information about COVID-19?

Staying up to date on the latest information on the COVID-19 outbreak is important. The CDC and your local and state health departments will have ongoing information about whether the disease has been diagnosed in your community.

This information is also available in Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and Arabic (PDF)

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