What you need to know about COVID-19 if you have cancer

What you need to know about COVID-19 if you have cancer

If you are undergoing cancer treatment or recently completed treatment, you are considered to be at a higher risk for severe illness related to COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This means you and your caregivers need to take extra precautions to lower your chances of contracting the virus.

Sandy Pyle, RN, oncology nurse navigator at the Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support at Piedmont Athens Regional, shares tips for reducing your risk of infection and for boosting your immune system function.

Follow CDC guidelines to reduce COVID-19 risk

“First, it’s essential to follow the CDC guidelines,” says Pyle. “There’s no room for error here.”

The guidelines:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after being in a public place, touching surfaces in public areas, sneezing, coughing or blowing your nose, and before touching your face or eating. Use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water aren’t available. Another good rule of thumb: Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer as soon as you get home from being out in public.

  • Disinfect your home and commonly touched surfaces, including light switches, doorknobs, desks, tables, counters, cell phones, sink handles and toilets.

  • Practice social distancing. Stay home unless you have a doctor’s appointment. Avoid being around other people unless they live in your home or are your primary caregiver. Avoid any exposure – even briefly – with anyone who has COVID-19 symptoms.

  • Do not shake hands or hug people.

  • Avoid non-essential travel.

  • Stock up on necessary supplies, including groceries, household items and medications. Pyle suggests having a month’s worth of prescription medications on hand, if possible, as well as your care team’s contact information if you have questions or concerns.

  • Ask someone to drop off food or supplies at your home. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, says Pyle. If someone offers to help you during this time, running errands or picking up your groceries is a practical way they can show their support. However, avoid contact with anyone dropping off items at your home. After you’ve unpacked your groceries, discard the bags, wipe down all surfaces the items touched and wash your hands.

  • Have a plan for who will care for you or drive you to appointments if your primary caregiver becomes ill.

  • Monitor for potential COVID-19 symptoms, including fever, shortness of breath and cough. If you or a caregiver has these symptoms, call your doctor.

Ask caregivers about their health

If someone besides your primary caregiver drives you to appointments, Pyle recommends asking if they have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 or is awaiting test results. If they have any symptoms that aren’t normal for them, such as a fever of 100 degrees or more, shortness of breath or a cough, find someone else to drive you.

You should also ask those who live with you or who visit your home to wash their hands as soon as they arrive at your house after being outside or in public.

“Don’t be afraid to ask these questions of people and make sure they are following appropriate CDC guidelines, like washing their hands and not touching their face, for both your protection and theirs,” she says.

Manage your stress

Stress management is another important way to protect your health during the COVID-19 pandemic, says Pyle.

“Stress hormones can suppress your immune system,” she explains. “This makes you even more liable to contract viruses or illnesses.”

Of course, having cancer is stressful and the COVID-19 pandemic can add more strain to an already challenging situation. That’s where these stress management techniques can help. They may not remove your stress completely, but they can lower stress, which helps your body function better. De-stressing practices can include:

  • Meditation

  • Journaling

  • Yoga

  • Spiritual practices

  • Exercise

  • Time in nature

  • Calling a friend

  • Counseling or coaching

  • Self-care

Exercise regularly

If you’re able to and have the OK from your physician, aim to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity five or more days a week.

“You don’t want to go to the gym where you are exposed to other people, so work out at home or go outside for a walk,” Pyle recommends. “There are also many great fitness resources on the internet.”

If you don’t have weights at home, she suggests using canned foods for upper body exercises, like biceps curls and overhead presses.

“When you exercise, you’re getting your white blood cells and antibodies circulating through your whole system, where they can detect anything foreign in your blood, like a virus, and hopefully attack it sooner,” she says.

Get enough sleep

“Getting at least seven hours of sleep a night has been proven to help the body reset itself and protect your immune system,” says Pyle.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, when you don’t get enough sleep, your body doesn’t produce as many cytokines, a type of protein that fights inflammation and infection.

Eat nourishing superfoods

In general, eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats can help your body function at its best, says Pyle. Avoid processed foods, like chips, candy, baked goods, deli meat, sausage, frozen dinners and sugary cereals.

If you’re in treatment, make sure you follow your doctor’s recommendations regarding your diet. For example, some people need to avoid raw fruits and vegetables because of potential pathogen exposure.

If you consume fresh produce, wash it thoroughly before chopping, peeling or eating it. Tough-skinned produce like avocados or cucumbers can be washed with a three-to-one water and vinegar solution. More delicate produce like raspberries should be washed thoroughly with water. After washing produce, dry it with a paper towel and then wash your hands with soap and water. 

Stay hydrated

Staying hydrated can help boost your energy, support your lymphatic system health and curb unhealthy food cravings. A good rule of thumb is at least four to six cups a day. Fruits, vegetables and soups also contain water and are considered hydrating.

Stay connected while social distancing

“While it’s hard, it’s important to avoid physical contact with others right now,” says Pyle.

She suggests thinking of it as physical distancing rather than social distancing. While you may not be able to be physically present with loved ones, you can still call, video chat, text and email them.

“You can still physically keep your distance, but socially stay connected to people in so many ways in our high-tech world,” she says.

While Cancer Wellness classes are canceled for now, Pyle says to call or email your local Cancer Wellness team if you have questions or need support.

Learn more about cancer prevention, wellness and treatment. For the latest on the coronavirus pandemic, visit the CDC.


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