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Cancer and the Coronavirus: What We Know and How to Protect Yourself

Dr. Bob Vonderheide, Director of the Abramson Cancer Center, delivers a message about patient care in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we want to assure you that at Penn Medicine's Abramson Cancer Center, we are providing care in the safest setting for all of our patients – whether you are new, on treatment or in follow-up care.

We continually review and enhance our care settings to ensure the protection of our patients, caregivers and staff. During this time and when medically appropriate, your care may change to a telemedicine visit (by video or phone), care in your home, or care in a new location in the hospital. Please be assured that we are monitoring this daily, that we will clearly communicate any changes, and that we are providing you the safest care.

We understand that you may have questions about risks of COVID-19 and have provided some answers to common questions below. If you have any additional questions or concerns, please reach out to your care team.

What should I do if I have symptoms of an infection?

If you develop symptoms of coronavirus, such as high fever, a deep dry cough, fatigue and shortness of breath, call your provider. They can provide guidance about whether to stay home and see how your symptoms progress, or whether you need immediate medical attention.

What should I do if a family member develops symptoms?

The health and safety of you and your family are a high priority for your care team at the Abramson Cancer Center. If a family member develops symptoms, you should try, to the best of your ability, to avoid close contact with them. Sleep in a different bedroom. Both your family member and you should frequently wash your hands. You should also clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces.

It is important that you let your physician and care team know if you have a family member who develops symptoms. They will partner with you and help ensure that you continue to receive the safest care possible while also focusing on the protection of all our patients and care teams.

How does COVID-19 affect cancer patients?

Some patients with cancer have weakened immune systems, due to their underlying condition or treatment. Having a weakened immune system makes it harder to fight off diseases. At the moment, there is limited data on whether patients with cancer or those who are receiving treatments that suppress their immune system, such as chemotherapy, could be more severely affected.

We're currently studying this question in our research laboratories and keeping a careful watch.

If I have cancer, am I at higher risk of getting COVID-19?

The coronavirus is still new and research is still developing on this virus and its effect on cancer patients. However, we do have information regarding the risk of infections in general for cancer patients, so we can make some assumptions.

When the body's white blood cells, which fight infections, are low or do not function well, the body is unable to fight infections effectively. Some treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, can cause side effects that decrease the body’s ability to fight infections. For this reason, cancer patients who are in active treatment may be at a higher risk for COVID-19.

In addition, people diagnosed with blood cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma, may have a higher risk of getting the coronavirus than those with other cancers. Blood cancers often disrupt the normal production of immune cells and affect the lymph system, which stores immune cells. Likewise, because COVID-19 attacks the lungs, those with lung cancer may also be at an increased risk for severe symptoms.

Are all cancer patients at risk, or only those in active treatment?

At the moment, there is limited data on whether patients with cancer or those who are receiving treatments could be more severely affected. Patients who are undergoing active treatment for cancer are presumably at higher risk than those who are in remission. However, the after-effects of cancer treatment can be long term. We believe that most people who were treated for cancer years ago are likely to have normal immune function, but each person is different.

We recommend discussing your concerns about your individual risk with your oncologist since they will best understand your situation and medical history.

Should I continue my cancer treatment, or is it better to avoid the hospital?

Your cancer team at the Abramson Cancer Center is assessing all patients who are scheduled for treatment during this time to ensure the safest care, which may include a potential delay until the pandemic has subsided.

We believe that cancer care, including chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, consultations and other visits should continue, unless you are experiencing coronavirus-like symptoms such as fever, cough and shortness of breath. Your providers are constantly assessing the risks associated with each patient’s unique cancer diagnosis and that of coronavirus exposure, and it is best for you to discuss any concerns with your provider.

We have processes, supplies and areas of our facility that are designed to prevent the spread of the virus to patients and staff. We have implemented screening protocols and safety measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at each of our locations.

In addition, we have quickly established the ability to perform many new patient and follow-up appointments virtually through telemedicine to ensure the safest access to your providers. If your appointment can be a telemedicine visit, your provider will give you more details.

Will my cancer surgery be postponed?

During our response to the coronavirus pandemic, it is critical that we manage the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks, gloves and surgical gowns, as many of these are in limited supply locally and nationally. Surgical procedures require a high use of PPE. In order to ensure that we are limiting exposure to coronavirus for our patients and care teams, and that we have sufficient PPE supplies to care for all patients during this pandemic, we are postponing and rescheduling some elective and less urgent surgeries.

Each cancer – and patient – is different, and we are considering every situation in an individualized basis. We will not postpone your surgery if we feel like there is a risk of your tumor growing or cancer spreading. If we do need to postpone your surgery, we will contact you directly and are happy to answer all of your questions.

If you have any concerns about your treatment plan or upcoming surgery, please speak with your care team.

What precautions should cancer patients take when they come in for treatment?

The Abramson Cancer Center is partnering with all of our patients to ensure the safest care setting for our patients and care teams. All patients will be asked screening questions prior to their appointment to determine if you have any risk of exposure to COVID-19 or any concerning symptoms. Upon arrival to your appointment, all patients will have additional questions asked and have their temperature checked. This level of screening is allowing us to ensure the safest care is being provided in our buildings.

In addition, we have instituted a no visitor policy with limited exceptions. This is to limit any potential coronavirus exposure to you, your visitor, your family and caregivers, and all of our patients.

If I test positive for the COVID-19 virus, can I still come in for treatment?

In general, we would postpone the treatment until you have recovered from the infection, just as we would for other types of infections such as the flu. It is very important to call your physician before your appointment if you have any symptoms to suggest COVID-19 infection (fever, cough or difficulty breathing), or been tested for COVID-19.

What if I am having a serious side effect or symptom and my cancer doctor recommends I come to the clinic or to the Emergency Department?

To minimize the need for a referral to an Emergency Department (ED), we are striving to care for all of our cancer patients right within our cancer clinics. In some of our hospitals, we’ve established symptom management and urgent care clinics specifically to manage more acute care outside of an ED. 

If your Penn Medicine oncologist refers you for in-person care at one of our oncology clinics, please be assured that we believe that this is the safest way to care for your symptoms. Your clinical team will be prepared for your arrival, and there are processes in place to ensure the safety of all of our patients.

Depending on the symptoms or side effects that you’re experiencing, your Penn Medicine oncologist may refer you to an ED instead of the cancer center. If they do, it is important that you proceed to the ED for care. The EDs across Penn Medicine have implemented new protocols and practices to ensure the safety and protection of all patients, including those with cancer. 

If you have further concerns, please contact your provider to discuss. 

About This Blog

The Focus on Cancer blog discusses a variety of cancer-related topics, including treatment advances, research efforts and clinical trials, nutrition, support groups, survivorship and patient stories.

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