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Cancer Patients Especially Vulnerable During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Publication: Spectrum News Austin

The immune systems of cancer patients are often immunocompromised — weakened by the disease and its treatments — putting them at higher risk for the severe form of COVID-19, the infection spreading around the world.

Among 44,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in China, 0.9 percent of patients who had no underlying medical conditions died as of last month, but that number rose to 6 percent for people with cancer, the CDC reported.

Compared to others “patients with cancer were observed to have a higher risk of severe events” like requiring a breathing machine, wrote researchers in The Lancet after analyzing the cases of 18 cancer patients sick with COVID-19 in China.

As patients weigh the pros and cons of continuing treatment during the coronavirus pandemic, cancer centers in Texas are remaining open and taking extra precautions to put their minds at ease.

“The natural consequence of patients not receiving therapy for several months if they have cancer usually will lead to an adverse outcome,” said Debra Patt, executive vice president of public policy and strategic initiatives at Texas Oncology.

Texas Oncology has announced the accelerated expansion of telemedicine capabilities in service of that mission, which now includes more than 400 physicians across the state. In addition to enhanced patient screening, rescheduling non-urgent appointments, and following strict safety protocols outlined by the CDC, the practice is concentrating staff in key locations to meet patient needs during this challenging time. 

The telemedicine expansion is critical to safeguarding cancer patients currently in Texas Oncology’s care. The practice sees more than 55,000 new cancer patients each year.

“By having a telemedicine platform it allows us to keep potentially infectious patients out of the clinic, it allows us to provide care for follow-up patients, and it allows us to see and evaluate new cancer patients that may be fearful to come into our clinic during COVID-19,” said Dr. Patt.

Here are some tips for patients with cancer and their caregivers to help them cope during these uncertain times:

  1. Educate Yourself. While COVID-19’s fatality rate is considered low — it’s about 1 percent in the United States at the time of this writing — we do know that individuals with existing health conditions like cancer will be at greater risk for more severe infections and additional complications. Coronavirus, like the flu and pneumonia, is an illness of the respiratory system. Anyone with cancer, undergoing treatment for cancer or recovering from that treatment will be at higher risk for complications with this illness.

  2. Protect Yourself. The virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person, between people who are in close contact with one another (within about six feet), through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. You can help stop the spread of germs by always covering your coughs, washing your hands and personal items like phones and keyboards (thoroughly and frequently) and avoiding touching your face. These steps not only help prevent you from spreading germs, but also minimize your contact with others’ germs. When you must venture out, wash your hands thoroughly and often. Change out of the clothes you wear outside the home as quickly as possible and launder them to eliminate anything you might have picked up. Leave shoes outside for natural sanitizing by the sun’s UV rays is an option, or you can wipe the soles down with sanitizing wipes to deal with anything tracked off of carpets, sidewalks or other surfaces.

  3. Be Patient. You were probably already practicing social distancing — whether you knew it or not — before this pandemic began as a way to protect your health. With community-wide public health measures in place, you may feel less connected to others than you did before, and we can’t say yet when these measures will be lifted. The uncertainty and the increased isolation — from family and your care team — can be frustrating. If you haven’t already, this is a great time to plan ways to distract yourself from the negatives and focus on the positives.

  4. Communicate with Your Care Teams. Practice self-awareness and report anything that seems off or different about your health. The incubation period for coronavirus is two to 14 days, and the symptoms are fever, cough and shortness of breath. If you note these, it’s wise to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advice, which is to call your doctor immediately and let them know you’d like to come in for testing. In the meantime, separate yourself from others in your home as much as possible. Keep your entire care team advised if anyone you know has contracted or is being monitored or tested for the virus.

  5. Care for Yourself. Maintain a healthy eating and exercise regimen, manage your stress and protect your sleep. Do something that you love and makes you feel good every day. Don’t forget to laugh. Life is undoubtedly unsettled and upsetting at the moment, but a good laugh is good medicine.

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