Cancer and Coronavirus: coping with a double challenge

COVID-19 by Brian McGowan
20 March 2020

Research based on data from China shows that cancer is among one of the more serious comorbidities that increase risks with respect to COVID-19, or coronavirus.

Patients with blood malignancies, who are in active chemotherapy or intensive radiotherapy, have antibody treatments or other targeted treatments such as protein kinase inhibitors, or who have undergone bone marrow or stem cell transplants in the last six months, are particularly vulnerable as these treatments weaken the immune system.

UICC is keenly aware of the monumental challenges this situation creates for cancer patients and caregivers. In countries where COVID-19 is spreading rapidly and severely, more and more hospitals are forced to stop certain cancer treatments. 

In addition, the rapid and global spread of the virus is forcing governments to take unprecedented measures to restrict travel and contact between individuals, as well as reduce access to hospitals to avoid straining health systems. 

Therefore, cancer patients who contract the coronavirus, experiencing potentially more severe symptoms, may not receive the treatment for COVID-19 that they need.

In light of this very serious situation, UICC urges everyone to consider all vulnerable populations as cancer patients with compromised immune systems and to conform with health safety, social distancing and containment guidelines. They should do so, not only for their own safety but also to preserve health systems and allow everyone, including the most vulnerable, the best chance of overcoming the challenges imposed by this pandemic.

Cancer and coronavirus: how to cope and stay healthy

UICC members and other actors of the cancer community are rallying to provide support and essential supplies to patients, in order to limit their exposure to the coronavirus and help alleviate the psychological impact of the pandemic. 

In particular, cancer patients can turn to UICC members around the world for information and support in coping with the additional stress and uncertainty caused by COVID-19. 

What can cancer patients do to minimise the risks?

Drawing on advice for patients and caregivers published by several cancer organisations, UICC offers below a summary of guidelines on how to minimise risks. Generic recommendations, such as regular handwashing for at least 20 seconds and social distancing, are particularly important for cancer patients.

Beyond that, cancer patients should:

  • consult with their health practitioner with regard to maintaining scheduled appointments for treatment; not more than one caregiver should accompany a cancer patient to treatment;
  • avoid public transportation; inquire if the treatment centre provides a transportation service. When travelling, take all measures to protect hands, mouth, eyes and maintain a safe distance from others;
  • minimise time spent in hospital settings by conducting consultations remotely, as possible, or have routine tests (such as blood tests) done at a general practitioner’s office;
  • keep the immune system as strong as possible: get enough sleep (ideally eight hours): engage in exercise if possible; eat healthily; avoid stress; and make sure other potential medical conditions (diabetes, blood pressure) are under control;
  • inform their medical provider if they develop symptoms, particularly a serious one such as respiratory difficulties;
  • plan ahead with health care providers, family and friends to address possible emergency needs, making sure any necessary documentation (insurance card, medical treatments, prescriptions) are easily available;
  • if family members develop symptoms, they should sleep in a different room and not accompany the patient to the cancer treatment centre; shared areas in the house should be cleaned with bleach.

For more specific questions regarding coronavirus as well as practitioner guidelines, please consult ASCO’s Coronavirus FAQs provided by the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Additional resources

UICC will add a plenary and sessions covering the impact of COVID-19 on the entire health system with a particular focus on cancer at its 2020 World Cancer Congress, which is still scheduled to take place in October.

Until then, UICC aims to provide members and the wider cancer community with up-to-date COVID-19 information, best practices and guidance documents. 

Last update: 
Wednesday 1 April 2020
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