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COVID-19 and cancer: What you should know

A man and a woman sitting on their porch.

There are several things that can put you in a high-risk category for severe illness with COVID-19. One of them is a history of cancer. If you have cancer now or had it in the past, you may need to take special steps to prevent exposure to the coronavirus.

This is especially true if you're being treated with chemotherapy. That's because chemotherapy can weaken your immune system. That puts you at higher risk for infection and makes the infection more severe.

How to avoid infection

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the best way to prevent COVID-19 is to avoid being exposed to the virus. To do that:

  • Clean your hands often. Use soap and water whenever possible. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before drying.
  • Avoid other people as much as you can. Choose to stay at home whenever possible. If you must go out, stay at least 6 feet away from others.
  • Wear a cloth face mask in public. Your mask should cover your mouth and nose. This helps to protect other people in case you are sick and don't know it yet. Remember that a face mask is not a replacement for social distancing.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Regularly clean and disinfect high-touch areas in your home. These include doorknobs, kitchen counters, phones and light switches.
  • Avoid being around sick people.
  • Ask others in your household to follow these same guidelines. It's important for them to understand that their actions affect your health and well-being.

Even if your state has begun lifting stay-at-home protection orders, continue acting as though the rules are still in place. Remember: It's important to limit contact with others outside your household to avoid infection.

Other ways you can protect yourself

Be sure you have a month's worth of essential medications at home in case you do get sick. This would include any prescription medicines you take, as well as over-the-counter medicines for fever.

And if you're scheduled for cancer treatments during this outbreak, talk with your oncologist about the risks of continuing or delaying treatment.

If you have medical visits scheduled, see if you can visit via telemedicine instead of in person. Telemedicine is a medical visit through video chat or a phone call. This can help reduce your potential exposure to the virus.

What to do if you're showing signs of illness

If you're being treated for cancer and develop respiratory symptoms and a fever, call your doctor. They will let you know what to do. Be sure to let them know if you're getting chemotherapy.

Some symptoms are severe and could be a medical emergency. Call 911 if you have:

  • Trouble breathing.
  • Persistent pain or pressure in your chest.
  • New confusion.
  • Inability to wake or stay awake.
  • Bluish lips.

If you test positive for the coronavirus, talk with your oncologist about how this might affect any cancer treatment. It's possible your treatment could be delayed until you're well again.

For more information about COVID-19, visit our Coronavirus health topic center.

Reviewed 6/30/2020

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