What does this mean for cancer patients and their caregivers? How can you prepare and protect yourself and your loved ones from COVID-19 over the next few weeks and months?
We spoke with our infectious diseases and infection control specialist Roy Chemaly, M.D. He shared the following advice.
1. Avoid unnecessary outings to limit COVID-19 exposure
Each time the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rises in your community, your chances of being exposed to the coronavirus rise, too. And the greater the spike in cases, the greater the risk every time you go out or interact with people outside your household. That’s why it’s important to continue staying home as much as possible, and remain committed to basic preventive strategies, such as wearing a mask, avoiding crowds, social distancing and washing your hands.
Preventing exposure is even more critical if you or a loved one has — or has had — cancer. Cancer treatments can lower your body’s resistance to viruses. And, if your loved one is immunocompromised, each exposure for you means a greater risk for them that they could catch the coronavirus.
“Now is not the time to let down your guard,” says Chemaly. “Simple precautions are still our best defense against COVID-19.”
2. Don’t put off your cancer care or screenings during the COVID-19 pandemic
Early in the pandemic, many people put off their medical appointments, including cancer care as well as routine screenings, such as mammograms. But don’t let COVID-19 become an excuse to put off any doctor visits. Many diseases are easier to treat when they’re caught in the earliest stages. Cancer is no exception.
“Most doctors’ offices and hospitals are doing everything they can to protect their patients so that it’s safe to get the care they need,” Chemaly says. “Ask in advance what precautions they’re taking, and if you don’t feel comfortable with them, look elsewhere.”
At MD Anderson, we’ve gone above and beyond the recommended precautions to protect our patients while they’re on our campuses. Among the COVID-19 precautions we’ve taken:
Screening everyone for COVID-19 symptoms at entrances to all of our campuses.
Providing medical grade face masks for everyone to wear on our campuses at all times.
Limiting seating and spacing out appointments to allow for social distancing on campus, including in waiting and dressing rooms.
Restricting visitors to limit the number of people on our campuses.
MD Anderson is also offering more virtual visits so that patients don’t have to visit our campuses for some consultations. If you have concerns about traveling to MD Anderson, talk to your care team to see if a virtual visit might be an option for you.
3. Get your flu shot
This year, we face the prospect of a “twindemic” — a flu outbreak during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Get immunized as soon as possible this year, and make sure every member of your family does the same,” says Chemaly. “This will not only protect your own health and that of your loved ones, but also the health of our frontline workers, who are already stretched thin by the coronavirus.”
4. Don’t travel unless it’s absolutely necessary
Now isn’t the time to be traveling for fun. But if you must travel for medical care, there are simple strategies you can use to minimize your risk.
Choose flights at off times, for instance, disinfect high-use surfaces you can’t avoid touching, or stay at lodgings that offer outdoor access to rooms. And, of course, wear a mask, practice social distancing, and wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. Every additional precaution you can take will reduce your risk by at least a little.
“If you have questions or concerns about traveling, talk to someone on your care team,” says Chemaly. “They can help assess your specific situation.”
5. Limit visitors and gatherings
Nobody likes to be a Scrooge, but pandemics don’t take a holiday, and neither should your COVID-19 precautions.
The more people you mingle with outside of your own household, the greater your chances are of being exposed to the coronavirus. So, don’t press pause on social distancing just yet.
Instead, weigh your options very carefully before making plans for Halloween, Thanksgiving and other holidays. And consider starting new traditions this year, or at least using technology to keep in-person celebrations as small as possible.
“If ever there was a time to stay low-key, this is it,” says Chemaly. “Sometimes, smaller really is better.”
Virtual support groups are available for both patients and caregivers at MD Anderson. These groups offer a chance to speak with and learn from others dealing with cancer during the pandemic. You don’t even need to leave home to participate. Patients and caregivers may also find it helpful to seek one-on-one support through myCancerConnection, MD Anderson’s cancer support community.
If you’re caring for someone with cancer, taking care of yourself is the first step in being able to continue doing the vital work of caregiving. And, if you’re undergoing cancer treatment, caring for your body can help you through treatment and keep your immune system stronger during the pandemic.
“A strong immune system starts with a healthy body,” says Chemaly.
8. Plan ahead
Make sure you have what you need now so you’re prepared for a fall or winter surge in COVID-19 cases.
That means making sure you have ample amounts of medication or any other items you might need— just in case there are supply chain issues or mandatory stay-at-home orders later on that make things harder to come by.
“That goes for face masks and hand sanitizer, too,” says Chemaly. “You best bet for avoiding COVID-19 is always going to be reducing your risk of exposure.”