Patient Care

COVID-19 and Cancer: Frequently Asked Questions

Mar. 19, 2020

Here are some answers to some common questions about COVID-19 and what you can do. Read through the article or click a link below to go to a specific question you have. 

What is COVID-19?

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COVID-19 is a new strain within the well-known family of coronaviruses. It has only been known to cause human illness since December 2019. Other coronaviruses are known to cause the common cold and other more serious and less common illnesses. COVID-19 symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. The symptoms can come on quickly and can range from mild to severe illness and death. It is important for high-risk individuals to take steps to prevent catching the illness. People with cancer, older adults as well as people with chronic heart disease, lung disease and diabetes seem to be at higher risk for more serious COVID-19 illness.

Are cancer patients at higher risk from COVID-19 infections?

We are just starting to understand COVID-19 specifically, but other viruses in the corona family often cause more severe illness in people whose immune systems are low, such as cancer patients undergoing treatment. 

People with cancer often have weakened immune systems, which make it harder for their bodies to fight off infections like the flu or COVID-19. Patients who are in active treatment, those who have undergone bone marrow transplants and those who have blood cancers such as lymphoma, leukemia and multiple myeloma may be at higher risk from COVID-19. Patients who are no longer in treatment may still want to be extra cautious as well.

How can I protect myself from COVID-19?

Everyone is encouraged to take the following steps to stay healthy:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay hydrated and get plenty of rest.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick. And when you are sick, stay home.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper arm. Immediately wash your hands.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces such as doorknobs, tables, light switches, toilets, faucets and sinks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends that anyone who is at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 should:

  • Take everyday precautions to keep space between yourself and others.
  • When you go out in public, keep away from others who are sick, limit close contact and wash your hands often.
  • Avoid crowds as much as possible.
  • Avoid cruise travel and non-essential air travel.
  • During a COVID-19 outbreak in your community, stay home as much as possible to further reduce your risk of being exposed.

Should I purchase protective equipment such as a face mask?

Our policy on face masks has been evolving with state and national recommendations. Currently, all patients and companions with symptoms will receive a mask to wear in all of Wilmot’s and UR Medicine’s clinical offices. All faculty and staff will be wearing masks at all times in our health care facilities, regardless of whether they have symptoms of coronavirus.

Previously, the CDC did not recommend that healthy people wear a mask in public. But due to new information about the spread of the virus by asymptomatic people, the CDC is reconsidering its position on masking. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization provides this advice to the public.

The best way to protect yourself and others is to wash your hands frequently and stay home.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

COVID-19 symptoms can include fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

What do I do if I feel like I’m developing symptoms?

Call ahead before visiting your doctor’s office or Urgent Care/Emergency Department and let them know about your symptoms.

Get medical attention immediately if you have any of these emergency warning signs:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or inability to arouse
  • Bluish lips or face

If you are unsure of what to do, contact the UR Medicine COVID-19 support line at 1-888-928-0011.

Should I cancel my appointment at Wilmot?

If you have concerns about whether or not to come in, contact your care team by phone or through MyChart, or call our Nurse Triage Line at 585-275-5823 to talk about your appointment.

Please call your care team before an upcoming appointment if you have:

  • Cough, fever, body aches or sore throat
  • Traveled in the last 14 days
  • Been in contact with someone who has COVID-19

Is Wilmot screening patients and visitors?

Yes, patients and and any visitors who are approved to enter Wilmot facilities are being screened when they enter our facilities by asking if they have a fever, cough, body aches or sore throat; if they have traveled in the last 14 days; or if they have been in contact with anyone who has had COVID-19.

It is extremely important that you be honest in answering these screening questions, especially if you have any of these symptoms. We will help you get the care you need.

If you or anyone in your household has these symptoms or has been exposed to someone with COVID-19, please contact your care team before you come in for your appointment.

Can I still bring someone with me to my appointment?

Given the extreme public health risks surrounding COVID-19, and in accordance with the Monroe County Department of Public Health, we have taken the difficult and unprecedented action of eliminating virtually all visitors to hospitalized patients to prevent potential spread of this virus, until further notice. Wilmot Cancer Institute also has visitor restrictions at our outpatient settings for the safety of our patients, staff and providers. This includes infusion centers, clinics and radiation oncology. This visitor policy will be in place until further notice and applies to all Wilmot Cancer Institute locations.

You can read more about our updated visitor policy here.

Can/should cancer surgery be delayed? What about radiation therapy?

For surgery: According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), individual patients and their doctors should make decisions after weighing the harms of a delay. The CDC’s guidance for health care facilities suggests that “elective surgeries” at in-patient facilities be rescheduled if possible. The American College of Surgeons (ACS) has issued guidance as well and provides advice related to triaging of patients for surgery relevant to cancer care. The Society of Surgical Oncology (SSO) has also released brief guidance for doctors on cancer surgery for a number of different tumor types.

For radiation: The American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) has information on its  COVID-19 resource page. Generally, and according to ASCO, the risks of delay in treatment for patients with rapidly progressing, potentially curable tumors may outweigh the risks of COVID-19 exposure/infection. But patients receiving radiation for symptom control or at low risk of harm due to alteration of schedule for radiation treatment visits could potentially be safely delayed. All patients should discuss their own situations with their radiation oncologist to determine the most appropriate course of action.

Should treatment that suppresses my immune system be stopped or delayed?

Currently, there is no evidence to support withholding or changing chemotherapy or immunotherapy in patients with cancer, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). All patients should be talking with their oncologists and making these decisions based on a variety of personalized factors, including the risk of cancer recurrence, the number of treatment cycles already completed, whether switching to an oral medication taken at home is possible, and the overall goals of treatment and how a treatment modification would impact those goals. Every decision about cancer treatment requires a risk/benefit discussion with your doctor.

Should I be taking an antiviral medication such as Tamiflu as protection?

To be clear, Tamiflu is not known to offer protection against COVID-19. And according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), at the present time there is no evidence that any antiviral medication will offer protection for immune-compromised patients.

However, this is an active area of research. In fact, the University of Rochester Medical Center is participating in a NIH-sponsored clinical trial to evaluate the safety and efficacy of the investigational antiviral drug remdesivir in hospitalized adults diagnosed with COVID-19. Other trials nationwide are also evaluating antiviral therapy for coronavirus -- but at this point none of the clinical trials have been specific to patients with cancer, ASCO said.

Are support groups and activities at the Integrative Oncology & Wellness Center still available?

For the safety of our patients, we have decided to temporarily suspend all support groups and group supportive activities at Wilmot Cancer Institute. At this time, we do not know when these activities will be re-established, but we will keep you updated when we know more.

UR Medicine Wilmot's Pluta Integrative Oncology & Wellness Center is offering some programming virtually through UR Medicine's YouTube channel and through Zoom. Yoga, tai chi, meditation and other videos are available for free to the public on the YouTube channel playlist or call (585) 486-0630 to learn more about Zoom options. Zoom classes are free and open to any Wilmot Cancer Institute patient or survivor. 

If you have questions related to community support resources or online support groups that you can use in the meantime, please contact Wilmot’s Community Resource Line at (585) 276-4708 or email WilmotCommunityResHelp@urmc.rochester.edu.

Where can I learn more?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has up-to-date and reliable information about COVID-19 and the precautions we should all take: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/index.html

UR Medicine also has local information: https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/coronavirus

Our colleagues at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle have additional information for people with cancer: https://www.fredhutch.org/en/news/center-news/2020/03/coronavirus-what-cancer-patients-need-to-know.html