The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have created systemwide problems in the healthcare industry as well as major disruptions in Americans’ individual health care. For cancer patients and their families, the pandemic has amplified old health concerns (like the risk of serious illness from infection) and even produced new ones (like delays in treatment and checkups).
Cancer and its treatment can reduce the immune system’s ability to fight infection. Chemotherapy, for example, is a form of treatment known to significantly reduce patients’ ability to recover from common illnesses like the seasonal flu. Particularly aggressive and contagious viruses like COVID-19 complicate patients’ and their families’ lives even more. Family members and caregivers have done everything from sanitizing groceries to canceling chemo sessions to avoid potential coronavirus exposure.
While new research emerges almost daily with more information about fighting the effects of COVID-19, families can still follow a few simple tips to help keep loved ones with cancer healthier and happier.
Covid-19 and Cancer Statistics
- A 2020 JCO Global Oncology Journal study of COVID-19 patients in Asia, Europe, and the U.S. revealed that cancer patients were admitted to hospital ICUs at much higher rates than people who never had cancer.
- The result of delaying treatment even 4 weeks increases the risk of death for cancers like breast, colon, and lung cancer, according to a British Medical Journal study.
- Research on the effects of coronavirus on cancer patients in the early part of the pandemic showed most cancer patients had a 1.8 times increased risk of dying from the virus compared to people without cancer. Patients with a blood cancer had 4 times the mortality risk if they became infected.
- Early screenings for breast, cervix, and colon cancer fell more than 90% in 2020. Cancer screenings are the most effective method for making early-stage diagnoses with a better prognosis – especially important for cancers like mesothelioma with typically shorter life expectancy rates.
Tips for Families of Cancer Patients
Whether you live with a cancer patient, or try to visit one when you can, use the below tips to safely help loved ones navigate new rules for treatment and stay connected with family and friends.
Check on your isolated loved ones.
More than most people, those who have been diagnosed with cancer have had to spend long periods of time in quarantine to avoid exposure. Moreover, many hospitals have restricted visitors or banned them completely. Even delivering gifts like flowers and balloons might not be allowed.
Staying away from family, friends, and neighbors can negatively affect a person’s mental health. Depression, already a risk among cancer patients, may become even more widespread.
Let patients know they’re not alone by sending messages or emails, making phone or video calls, and visiting when able. If you notice a severe change in his or her mood, notify a member of their cancer care team.
Regularly clean surfaces you touch a lot.
Washing your hands regularly seems like a no-brainer at this point, but cleaning all of the surfaces you touch is just as important. When virus-containing droplets from an infected person’s mouth lands on something you handle, you could transfer it to another surface or infect yourself by touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. These droplets pose an even greater risk to immunocompromised individuals.
Like washing your hands, remember to regularly clean surfaces you touch a lot (such as cell phones, door handles, keyboards, refrigerator handles, etc.).
Keep a journal to track existing and new symptoms.
If you’re taking care of someone with cancer, help them keep a journal of their current symptoms as well as any new ones that appear. Having a record of things like the frequency and intensity of nausea can help doctors diagnose cancer complications. Also, noting new symptoms may make treating side effects easier.
The most common symptoms of COVID-19 include feeling very tired, cough, shortness of breath, and a new loss of smell or taste. However, outlying effects from a COVID-19 infection can affect other areas of the body – especially for people with underlying conditions.
Use phone calls and video chat to stay in the loop at appointments.
Most hospitals and clinics have greatly restricted the number of people allowed inside their facilities. Due to COVID-19, cancer patients will likely end up going to checkups and out-patient treatments alone.
You can stay involved in your loved one’s cancer care by staying on the phone with the patient during doctor’s visits. Take notes and use the speaker function or video chats (like Skype and FaceTime) to ask questions over the phone.
Ask about adjusting the treatment plan.
Putting off elective cancer therapies even a few weeks can allow tumors to spread and cause further internal damage. Yet, some hospitals have been forced to delay treatments due to medical supply and in-patient room shortages.
To avoid treatment delays, ask about the possibility of switching infusions to prescription oral medication. Also, requesting an increase in your prescription amount can reduce the number of trips you need to make to the pharmacy.
Destiny Bezrutczyk is a digital content writer with six years’ experience editing and writing targeted, long- and short-form content for the web and social media. Her work includes topics spanning personal injury and wrongful death law, cancer care and medical research, as well as addiction and the mental healthcare industry. Destiny holds a bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature from Texas Tech University.