Story by: Karen Allen, BSN, R.N., OCN on March 16, 2021
Cancer patients may have increased fears about exposure to COVID-19 because they are less able to fight off infections than the average healthy adult. The higher risk of getting infections and viruses like COVID-19 can be a result of cancer’s effect on the immune system or a result of cancer treatments.
There is emerging evidence that patients with cancers of the blood such as leukemia or lymphoma have a greater risk of infection and complications than other people. Patients whose cancer is progressing when diagnosed with COVID-19 may be at higher risk of serious complications compared with those whose disease is under control or in remission.
There is limited evidence that any cancer treatment, including chemotherapy or radiation, contributes to getting the virus or having more severe complications. Continuing your cancer treatment is important, and following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to wear a mask, stay 6 feet apart, avoid crowds and practice good hand hygiene will reduce your risk of infection. Talk with your doctor about decreasing nonessential clinic visits or conducting follow-up appointments by telephone or telehealth.
If you are taking an oral cancer therapy (in pill or capsule form by mouth), have a discussion with your cancer care team to decide if any changes to your treatment or schedule are necessary. If you have no symptoms or signs of the virus, it is best to continue taking your oral therapy as ordered.
Related: Cancer in the time of COVID-19: Checking your emotions
Patients receiving treatment for cancer should receive a COVID-19 vaccine as long as there are no other reasons, such as an allergy, to not get it, according to Adam D. Lye, M.D., medical oncologist at Norton Cancer Institute. He noted the expert opinion expressed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.
These vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective for the general population, and there is no evidence that they would not be safe for most cancer patients. However, patients receiving treatment were excluded from the vaccine trials, so there is no hard data on the safety and efficacy for them. Some patients with low blood counts may have decreased response to a COVID-19 vaccine, but it may reduce the risk of severity of COVID-19.
Most cancer survivors should be offered the COVID-19 vaccine unless there is a known allergy to the vaccine or its ingredients. Cancer survivors’ risk of infection may depend on their treatment, the type of cancer and how much time has passed since completing treatment. For example, new studies suggest that lung cancer patients who received chemotherapy before a COVID-19 diagnosis are at higher risk of infection and serious complications within three months of the treatment.
Karen Allen, BSN, R.N., OCN, is an oncology patient navigator at Norton Cancer Institute.
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