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COVID-19 and Breast Cancer Care: What Patients Need to Know
BCRF Scientific Director Dr. Judy Garber answers common questions about navigating COVID-19 and cancer.
During these uncertain times, everyone’s wondering what they should do to stay healthy and how to protect themselves from COVID-19 (coronavirus). Many of us have the same questions on our minds: What are the symptoms of COVID-19? Who is at risk of contracting COVID-19? Should I wear a mask? Patients with breast cancer and other cancers have an extra layer of fear, as they navigate concerns about immunity and the safety of continuing treatment.
While the best advice for getting diagnosed or treated for breast cancer during the coronavirus pandemic is to talk to your doctor, here is Dr. Garber’s guidance on some common questions.
How can I protect myself from COVID-19?
Everything medical experts have recommended is what everyone—including cancer patients—should be doing. Wash your hands and avoid touching your face. Stay inside as much as possible. Try to be as hygienic as possible, wiping down surfaces and cleaning your house regularly.
Am I more at risk of contracting the coronavirus because of my treatments?
For breast cancer patients, chemotherapy tends not to be as toxic to the immune system (compared to chemotherapy for other kinds of cancers, like leukemia, which is generally more intense and wipes out the entire immune system). But chemotherapy can affect a patient’s ability to fight bacteria, and for that reason, they’re given injections to boost white blood cell counts.
Cancer patients whose treatment protocols involve immunotherapy have a special set of concerns. In general, immunotherapy isn’t a widespread treatment for breast cancer, but it is sometimes used for breast cancers like triple-negative. Immunotherapy can affect the lungs, potentially making patients more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Patients getting hormonal therapy may not feel completely normal during their treatments, but their immune systems are much less compromised.
The bottom line: All patients undergoing treatment should follow the CDC’s advice to limit the spread of the virus. Those undergoing chemotherapy and immunotherapy should be extra cautious and consult with their doctors about additional precautions.
What about if I successfully completed treatment? Am I immunocompromised?
Breast cancer survivors are not generally immunocompromised by past treatments, but they should talk to their doctors about any concerns or underlying conditions.
Should I continue to go to chemotherapy and radiation treatments?
It’s fair to be concerned about leaving the house right now for treatment. Hospitals and treatment centers are aware of this and are taking extra precautions to protect patients.
Your treatment is important. Most of the time, doctors will try to keep treatments on schedule. But again, consult with your doctor about whether he or she advises any modifications.
What about mammograms and other routine screenings?
While cancer treatments need to continue for many, mammograms and other routine screenings are a different story. Some providers and hospitals are not offering certain preventative services to save their resources for COVID-19.
It may be best to put off that exam or screening until things settle down, if your doctor agrees. If you have immediate concerns about symptoms or medications, many doctors have introduced virtual visits to answer questions while practicing social distancing.
What COVID-19 symptoms should breast cancer patients be on the lookout for?
The most important coronavirus symptoms to pay attention to are fever and shortness of breath. Breast cancer patients in treatment should always be on the lookout for those symptoms anyway. Call your doctor at the first sign.
What’s tricky is that we’re currently in allergy season. So, if you feel like you felt last year and you're not undergoing chemotherapy or immunotherapy, you might be inclined to wait before calling your doctor.
What guidance do you have for managing stress?
We’re all living with more stress than usual. There are several helpful online tools for everything from yoga to therapy.
Everyone has different ways of managing stress. Some might find things like listening to music comforting. Many symphonies and musical groups are giving free concerts that you can tune into if music helps you relax. People are meditating, calling friends, having Zoom dinners, and participating in all kinds of virtual activities. Finding a way to feed your inner self is critical for patients and their caretakers, too.
This is a scary, new reality for everyone, but know that your healthcare team is committed to getting you through this cancer experience. Don’t hesitate to lean on them for support, and, most importantly, know you’re not alone.