Image courtesy CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM

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What Every Cancer Patient Should Be Asking About Coronavirus

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2. Since the first confirmed case in late January 2020 in Wuhan City, China, hundreds of thousands of cases have been reported. Shortly after the first case was detected,the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a global public health emergency.

With hot spots around the globe, the illness is becoming more widespread, reaching many different countries (including the United States). As reports of coronavirus spread, it is important to differentiate fact from fiction and seek information from sources you can trust.

For cancer patients and their families, there are likely many questions at the forefront of their minds. Margaret von Mehren, MD, a medical oncologist and Chief of the Division of Sarcoma Medical Oncology at Fox Chase weighs in with answers to some of the more common questions we’ve heard:

What exactly is the coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses common in humans and many different species of animals. The type that has recently been in the news is known as 2019 novel (new) coronavirus, or COVID-19.

How does the coronavirus spread?

We are still uncertain about the exact way COVID-19 is transmitted. Based on what is known about viruses that are similar to COVID-19, it’s thought to spread primarily through person-to-person interaction (particularly through close contact, meaning that individuals are less than six feet away from one another).

COVID-19 is most likely transmitted through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It may also be possible for someone to get COVID-19 by touching an object or surface that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth or eyes.

Learn more about transmission of the coronavirus from the CDC.

What are the symptoms? What should I be looking out for?

Reported symptoms of COVID-19 are:

  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough

Can I still receive cancer treatment if I have the symptoms above?

The answer to this will vary depending on the individual and will depend on the severity of the symptoms that you are experiencing.

If you are having any of the symptoms above or have been in contact with someone known to have COVID-19 (or have traveled to an area facing an outbreak of the disease), please call your care team to let them know. Similar to if you were having symptoms of other respiratory illnesses such as the flu, they will be able to assess the situation and guide you to the best next steps.

What can I do to prevent myself from getting the coronavirus?

The best way to prevent illness is to avoid exposure to COVID-19. One way to do this is by following the travel guidance set forth by the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO).

In addition, many precautions that you already take to avoid the spread of respiratory illness can be taken, such as:

  • Avoiding close contact with people who are showing symptoms (particularly fever and cough) and practicing social distancing
  • Avoiding touching your nose, mouth, and eyes
  • Washing your hands frequently and vigorously with soap and water for 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom and before eating
  • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household disinfectant

Am I more at risk for contracting COVID-19 because I have cancer?

People with cancer may be at a higher risk of contracting viral respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19. However, at this time, there are no additional measures that should be taken aside from the recommendations listed above.

Do I need to wear a face mask?

The CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a face mask to protect themselves against COVID-19.

Face masks should be worn by people who are showing symptoms of COVID-19 to prevent spreading the disease to others.

Why is my doctor or nurse wearing a face mask? Do they have COVID-19?

If you see a physician or nurse wearing a face mask, it does not mean that they are infected with COVID-19. According to CDC guidelines, physicians and nurses who come in direct contact with patients will wear a mask. The safety of our patients and minimizing their risk of exposure to COVID-19 is our top priority.  

I am the caregiver of someone with cancer. Are there any additional precautions I should be taking?

The role of a caregiver is extremely important. Whether you live with someone who has cancer or regularly care for them, it is important to remain vigilant about your own health. Making sure to practice good hygiene and take the precautions listed above is important. Remember, you can’t take the best care of them if you aren’t healthy yourself.

Where can I find up-to-date information about the coronavirus?

Trustworthy resources on COVID-19 include the following websites:

Fox Chase Cancer Center is closely monitoring developments related to COVID-19 and is actively taking measures to safeguard our patients, staff, faculty, and volunteers. We have put specific precautions in place for the safety of our Fox Chase community.

If you have any questions related to COVID-19 and your health, please reach out to your care team.

If you are experiencing flu-like symptoms, have recently travelled to a country designated by the CDC as having a Level 3 Travel Health Notice, or have come in contact with a person who has a confirmed case of coronavirus, please call nurse triage at 215-728-4300 prior to your (next) medical appointment.

Reviewed by Nancy Warren, Infection Control Manager, Fox Chase Cancer Center