With the advent of the Northern Hemisphere’s winter cold and flu season, cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) are on the rise around the world, with the highest number of cases and deaths in the United States. During the spring of 2020, numerous public venues and institutions shut down in order to flatten the curve and prevent the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19. These shutdowns were meant to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases. As the pandemic progressed and institutions reopened, researchers and physicians were able to gather preliminary data to assess and modify their best practices for patients who are undergoing treatment for cancer, in remission or at risk for developing cancer.
Here is a look at what has changed—and what hasn’t—regarding cancer treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic since the first wave of cases earlier this year.
- Compared to the first wave of COVID-19 infections in the spring, most health care clinics and doctors’ offices are not shutting down. Patients can schedule surgeries and outpatient procedures but often need to undergo COVID-19 testing beforehand.
- There are people who have survived COVID-19 and are proceeding with cancer treatment. It is important that these patients stay completely isolated outside of going to doctor visits and being with family members who are already living with them.
- Doctors can prescribe medication—pegfilgrastim—to help reduce the chance of infection due to a low white blood cell count known as neutropenia, which is often a side effect of the treatment of cancer with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
- Many patients are choosing the telehealth route when a physical exam is not necessary. A lot of genetic testing can be accomplished by telehealth through saliva testing that is completed through the mail.
- Most COVID-19 spread is happening at family and community gatherings, not health facilities. This is important to keep in mind during the upcoming holiday season.
What Hasn’t Changed
- The COVID-19 precautions developed for everyone early in the pandemic still apply: Wash your hands frequently, wear a mask in public and stay socially distanced.
- Isolate at home if you are immunocompromised.
- In the United States, COVID-19 restrictions continue to vary by state, county or institution.
- Patients still have a limited ability to bring along loved ones to their doctor appointments; patients should verify what the policy is where they are receiving treatment.
COVID-19 recommendations continue to evolve, but health care practitioners understand that people cannot delay medical care and routine exams indefinitely. It is important to schedule screenings at recommended intervals—such as mammograms, Pap smears and annual wellness exams—to ensure that the warning signs of cancer or other diseases are not missed when intervention can be most effective.
For more information: Common Questions About the COVID-19 Outbreak from the American Cancer Society (updated regularly)